Like many other retired health-care professionals, I recently returned to work in the ICU as coronavirus cases surged. In many ways, entering through the hospital doors felt like returning home. The hallways are the same through which I’d marched for thousands of hours during my training to examine patients, rush to the OR, and grab a cup of coffee at 2 a.m. My colleagues are the same, and upon reuniting we shared old jokes and memories. The work felt familiar, like slipping on a well-worn glove that had softened and molded to the hand.
In other ways, however, the scene was unsettling. Security officers stood guard in the lobby, doling out hand sanitizer and permitting entry only to the asymptomatic. Masks covered all faces. Floors I once frequented to consult on belly pain or to check post-operative incisions were filled to the brim with coronavirus sufferers. Recovery rooms suddenly functioned as ICUs. The hallways, the rooms, and even the familiar faces all announced the sinister transformation the pandemic has forced on us.
Among all the changes, the worst was the empty chairs in the ICU.
The hallways, the rooms, and even the familiar faces all announced the sinister transformation the pandemic has forced upon us.
ICUs are houses of sorrow. Tears stain pillows. Moans break the rhythmic sighing of ventilators. Some occupants wither toward death, while others cling to life with the threat of catastrophe looming like a gray phantom.
Yet even amid the sadness, the tenderness of families often breaks through this melancholy like a supple shoot through soil. Loved ones draw their chairs up close during a patient’s last hours to cradle a familiar palm, and to fill the air with whispers of memories and beloved songs. They shave a wayward beard, play favorite Sinatra tunes, or crack jokes to coax a smile. They offer reminders to those grappling with illness that life constitutes so much more than the four corners of a hospital room. Families remind the dying that they matter so much more, that they are loved and remembered, and that their worth doesn’t begin or end with disease.
But now, as COVID-19 strangles out everything good, the chairs are empty. The patients still grasp for life, and the ventilators still hiss their cold cadence, but the families are kept at bay, accessible by phone and screen only.
I’ve had many hard conversations with families before, but never in all my years like this. In one case, goodbyes were said over FaceTime. In another, “I love you’s” were offered with cracking voices during a Zoom conference. Then the meetings ended, and the heartbeats slowed to a stop alone, far distant from those who could hold the hands, sing the songs, and offer the reminders. Far distant from those who infused life with meaning.
I Am with You Always
It’s hard not to despair in such times. The Adversary seems determined to sever us from one another through this pandemic, to obliterate the ties of family, friendship, and the fellowship we so cherish. No matter where you weather this crisis, loneliness seems a steadily encroaching shadow. Churches yearn to gather, to rejoice together as one body. Loved ones long to visit and embrace. Even among the dying, the chairs are empty, the isolation all-encompassing.
Churches yearn to gather, to rejoice together as one body. Loved ones long to visit and embrace. Even among the dying, the chairs are empty, the isolation all-encompassing.
And yet, we’re not alone. God knows each and every one of us, such that even the hairs on our heads are numbered (Luke 12:7). Even when we face the minutes in isolation, whether they be at home or in the deep quiet of sedation in the hospital, he remains with us, as promised in Psalm 139:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there
if I make my bed in the depth, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
If I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will fold me fast.
In these strange days, when it’s unloving to lay hands, when the chairs beside the dying sit vacant, what sweet comfort it is to remember that God knows us by name. If we sequester alone in our homes, God is there. If we bid a loved one farewell over the phone, God is there. If we succumb to the coronavirus alone in the hospital, still he is there, because Christ has redeemed us through his precious blood, and promises to remain with us always: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
Chairs are empty. But thanks be to God, so is the tomb.
God told Joshua overlooking the promised land, “I will not leave you or forsake you” (Josh. 1:5). During the exodus, day and night, God “did not depart from before the people” (Ex. 13:22). So also, when we agonize and worry, when we face the day with a mask, when we stare at the ceiling above our hospital bed, he will not forsake us. He will not depart from before us. In Christ, he will not leave us, and, when Jesus returns, we will dwell in his radiance forever (Rev. 21:23).
For now, we groan. For now, pandemics seethe, and we yearn for warmth, for tenderness, for a loving embrace. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:4). Nothing can wrench us from his love in Christ—not death, not angels, not demons, not even a pandemic that tears apart everything we hold dear (Rom. 8:38–39).