Chaplain from Great Plains on front lines vs. COVID-19 in Florida

David Burke

4/21/2020

The Rev. Denise Sawyer has seen nothing like it in her nearly nine years as a chaplain at a southwest Florida hospital.

The Rev. Denise Sawyer, right, prays with a staff member at Florida's Cape Coral Hospital. Contributed photos

“The leadership team was watching for it, but it still felt like it was hitting us from out of nowhere,” Sawyer, an elder in the Great Plains Conference, said of the coronavirus pandemic. “One day we went into work and suddenly there were these rules, and the rules were changing from minute to minute.”

Based in Cape Coral, Florida, Sawyer is one of seven chaplains that serve a five-hospital system. Although she didn’t have statistics, she said several patients a week had died of the COVID-19 virus in the group.

A native of the Bahamas who moved to the former Kansas West Conference in 2002, Sawyer has worked with doctors, staff, families and patients who are struggling with the virus.

In one case, she was calling an adult son of a COVID-19 patient, not realizing he also had the virus and that his mother died of coronavirus in a nearby hospital.

“That one really hit me,” she said.

Sawyer also said she is faced with questions she can’t answer.

“You have some patients who are dying, and their family members are in such shock because some of the family has it, and some don’t. It’s difficult to wrap their heads around it, ‘Why didn’t I die?’” she said. “It’s survivor’s guilt.”

From 2002 to 2006, Sawyer was a pastor at Mitchell Chapel, Wichita Calvary and Towanda, Kansas.

She said she and the staff are getting used to “the new way.”

“It was difficult to get here, but the anxiety is not as high as it was,” Sawyer said. “We’ve gotten used to wearing our masks and wearing our goggles and dressing up. We don’t know if a new wave will hit.”

How did you decide you wanted to be a chaplain?

“It was really a period of discernment and prayer. When I was in Kansas as a pastor, I felt that God was calling me to a different ministry. But I had no idea what it was. It was a really difficult time in my life, because when you go to seminary, and you study there, you’re studying to be a pastor. I’m like, ‘God, what is it you want me to do? I think I know what you want me to do, I’m just not feeling this is it.’ It got to the point where I was battling depression with it. I knew that was not my natural character, to be down and to be sad. One weekend it got so bad that my best friend called my D.S. (district superintendent), who at that time was Cheryl Bell, and said, ‘Something’s wrong with Denise, please check in with her.’ That weekend I realized something wasn’t right. …

“I went to a therapist, and it was going to that therapist that I realized my ministry was a ministry of healing. When I discovered it, this weight fell off my shoulder. I said, ‘OK, God, if this is for me I need you to guide me, I need to show me the way, and I need you to open up every single door. I don’t even want to have to push a door with my little finger.’ I wrote the bishop; I told the bishop I felt the call to

chaplaincy ministry. I ended up going to a clergy women’s conference and someone showed me a pamphlet that said, ‘Are you called to be a chaplain?’ I contacted them and they told me the process to go through for getting endorsed. I did my CPD at Methodist Health System in Dallas. It was during my second year of residency that I started applying for jobs, and I got my job at Cape Coral Hospital in Florida.”

How has the coronavirus changed how you do your job?

Sawyer gives prayer to a patient.

“I serve patients, family, staff and volunteers. Right now, my work has changed because we don’t have any volunteers. We put the volunteer program on a leave of absence. We don’t have families coming into the hospital. Most of our patients right now are either have been diagnosed with COVID-19, or they are under investigation because they have symptoms. My responsibility right now is keeping the staff inspired and hopeful. Because as you can imagine, the staff is feeling anxiety — like all of us — … Some of them have to be separated from their families because their families have pre-existing conditions. If a staff member contracts COVID, it could adversely affect their family members. Some of our staff members are living in trailers outside their homes and some of them are living in hotels. Just keeping them inspired, keeping them hopeful. I also talk to family members, letting them know I’m checking in to see how they’re doing. My ministry has also changed, where before I would go into the room and talking to the patients and hearing the patients’ stories. Now I’m not able to go into their rooms. The patients that are awake and alert, I’m able to talk them over the phone and pray for them over the phone as they’re in their room. Those on ventilators, I’m checking in on their family members to see what they need, how I can support them, and to hear their stories. Even though it’s over the phone, they’re very appreciative.

“Our leadership team is working all the time, so I’m working with (them) and encouraging them to take breaks during the day, go outside and take a walk. I did a dance session with them. … It surprised me how long it took for them to leave their computers. I said, ‘No, stop it, you’re going to dance and take a break.’ When they started dancing, they started laughing, and they were teasing one another. You could see the difference when they sat back down at the table — the difference in their energy level. With me caring for others, I’m being very, very intentional about caring for myself. I’m taking a minimum of 30 minutes of quiet time every morning. I play my Gospel music. If I’m in a telephone meeting, I go outside and walk around. I’m watching my diet, because my food was horrible. About three years ago I changed my eating, and I’m sticking to my eating plan of eating living things – meats, fruits vegetables, no sugary stuff, no flour-y stuff. I’m making sure I take care of myself in the midst of this.”

What can you tell these patients, these doctors and these families at a time like this?

“What I say to them is that I remind them that history has shown us that we have, as human beings, had experiences like this before. There have been pandemics before, and humanity has survived those pandemics. We’re going to survive. It’s going to be painful, but we must stay hopeful, do our best, and every day when we come into this hospital, offer the best you have to offer. And be sure, in the midst of this, that you are taking care of yourself, that you are being kind to yourself, and that you’re being compassionate to yourself. And pass that on to the people you’re taking care of. I also remind them that we do have a God that is watching over us, a God that loves us, and a God that is with us in the midst. The Bible reminds us that we are not alone, that God is with us. When we’re feeling beat and we can’t go on, the Scripture reminds us that God is our strength and God is our refuge.”

Contact David Burke, communications content specialist, at dburke@greatplainsumc.org.


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