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This article, titled “A Chaplain Confronts COVID-19”, is taken from the December 2020 Light + Life Magazine Issue – CLICK HERE to view the entire December 2020 issue of Light + Life
By Jeff Finley
No one has completely escaped the trials of 2020, but Larry Lyons especially has experienced intense challenges and times of grief and loss during the pandemic.
First, he contracted COVID-19 in early March but didn’t initially know he had it because of only experiencing mild symptoms such as loss of taste and smell, which had not yet been publicly associated with the virus.
Then the number of coronavirus patients increased dramatically at St. Mary Mercy Livonia, the Michigan hospital where Lyons — a Free Methodist elder and a member of the denomination’s Chaplains Executive Committee — serves as the manager of spiritual care.
“The hospital just exploded March 24 really,” said Lyons, who experienced a personal explosion over the next couple of days.“I got a call that my mother [a resident of an assistant living facility in Chelsea, Michigan] was being taken to the hospital. Of course, she’d been in lockdown since March 13,” recalled Lyons, who, after receiving the call about his mother, immediately contacted a palliative care doctor friend who lives in Chelsea. “She beat me to the Chelsea hospital and was with my mom, holding her hand, playing hymns to her. We put her on hospice care right there, and she died the next day. ”
A test confirmed his mother, Lois Marie Lehtinen, died of COVID-19. Lyons is thankful he had the opportunity to be with his mother as she died. “We were able to be with her – my sister and myself.
We, of course, had our personal protective equipment on. … We had to FaceTime the rest of our family in,” he said. “Little did I know that’s what I was going to be spending my next two months doing with other families.”
Lyons’ hospital and the surrounding area soon emerged as the Upper Midwest forefront in the battle against the coronavirus.
“We’re in western Wayne County, which is the county that Detroit is in,” Lyons said. “Detroit was a hotspot. The hospital was very impacted by COVID, so I spent the next two months with COVID patients as they died, FaceTiming families that could not or didn’t want to be at bedside due to COVID, and it was all quite overwhelming.”
The hospital ultimately received a visit from Dr. Deborah Birx, the response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, who expressed thanks for the efforts to fight the virus and prevent further spread. Lyons said hospital employees were honored by her visit.
“We were on the map as far as one of the hardest hit. There’s a reason she was there,” Lyons said. “At one point, in our 300-bed hospital, the majority were COVID patients.”
The city of Livonia reported more than 180 COVID-19 deaths through Nov. 20.
Lyons said he and the other hospital chaplains “tried to create ritual” while “trying to be present and caring for the decedents in a respectful manner.”
The hospital reportedly had the most coronavirus patients of any facility in the St. Joseph Mercy region of Trinity Health system.
“We were able to provide ritual for the temporary morgue, which seemed to help the chaplains and staff cope in the midst of such a devastating time,” Lyons said. “Knowing that so many people were dying, the chaplains were overwhelmed too. We couldn’t be with everybody. We could have as many as 12 to 14 deaths a day at the peak. It was just physically impossible. The frontline staff, the nurses, were carrying this burden and doing things they normally wouldn’t be doing. It was heartbreaking for us.”
The chaplains tried to be present at shift changes to support the hospital staff. Ongoing challenges have included a lack of recovery time for the staff and possible cases of post-traumatic stress disorder from the first wave of the virus. The local Roman Catholic convent, which founded the hospital, was not spared from the outbreak.
“Thirteen of our Felician sisters died,” Lyons said.
The Detroit Free Press reported that 30 nuns in Livonia were sick with the coronavirus. According to the National Catholic Reporter’s Global Sisters Report, “the 13 Felicians lost in Livonia may be the worst loss of life to a community of women religious since the 1918 influenza pandemic.”
Lyons appreciated how patients’ family members treated him and the other staff during the difficult conditions. Some family members were allowed to be with patients, but many had to stay away and connect to the patients virtually.
“We would try to have the FaceTime or video ready so family could be present. … The resiliency of families in the pandemic was amazing. They understood they couldn’t be there with their loved one or they chose not to be [for health and safety reasons]. They understood this was global,” Lyons said. “At one point, I was on the phone with a family checking on them after their loved one had died, and the gentleman stopped me on the phone, and he said, ‘Larry, how are you? … You need to know we are praying for you.’”
The families’ attitudes blessed and encouraged the chaplains.
“I would say, looking back, part of my resiliency comes in moments of blessing,” Lyons said. “I intentionally hold those moments of blessing that helped me with my recovery and resiliency.”
Connection and Care
Lyons is an alumnus of Central Christian College of Kansas (CC ’88), Greenville University, and Asbury Theological Seminary. He served as a pastor for 16 years in the Southern Michigan Conference — four at the Albion Free Methodist Church (now known as Reclamation Church) and 12 at the Chelsea Free Methodist Church.
Ten years ago, he began his clinical pastoral education process with seven units of clinical pastoral education during a two-year residency at Mercy Health – St. Vincent Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio, and then he became the manager of spiritual care at the hospital in Monroe, Michigan. He started working at St. Mary Mercy Livonia in 2016.
During the last decade, he has found support and encouragement through the gatherings of Free Methodist chaplains. He credited the denomination’s former and current directors of chaplain ministries for helping him stay connected.
“Stepping out of the church proper and into chaplaincy, it is not easy. You lose a lot of connection, but thank the Lord there are people like Rex and Louise Carpenter and now Tim and Patricia Porter who are there as our primary support persons and connection,” said Lyons, who has also led some Free Methodist chaplain training sessions “to give back and do some teaching.”
Lyons also works across denominational lines. St. Mary Mercy Livonia’s seven full-time chaplains include two Catholic priests and five Protestant ministers from various denominations, and the hospital serves as a placement site for Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) residents and interns.
“At our hospital, we’re blessed. We make proactive visits. We can see up to 600 to 800 people a week. We attempt to see every patient to find some meaningful connection,” Lyons said. “Being part of a faith-based hospital is beautiful. We don’t sit back and wait.”
Lyons said the chaplains “find a very warm reception” among patients “from all different faiths, even people that are atheists.” Regardless of their backgrounds and beliefs, the patients all share the basic human needs to be heard and loved.
“When’s the last time somebody listened to you just because they wanted to, and they didn’t want to tell their own story, but they were fully present?” Lyons said. “People want that and need that, and that’s where chaplains start, which gives us an inroad to do that spiritual assessment.”
One patient in his 80s initially declined Lyons’ offer of prayer because the man said, “I don’t think that prayer would do any good.” Lyons asked why, and the man revealed he had been a Korean War fighter pilot. Lyons recalled, “He went on to tell me his story – possibly telling it for the first time – and, at the end of quite a long visit, he looked at me with a smile and said, ‘I think I’ll take that prayer now.’”
Grieving With Others
One patient with ALS appeared terrified when Lyons entered his room. The man was an atheist, but he tearfully opened up to Lyons about his life story and his grief.
“I believe every one of us has something to grieve,” Lyons said. “That’s another basic human need, and chaplains come in listening, a non-anxious presence to provide that support. It’s amazing where people will go when you want to listen.”
Despite the instructions of Romans 12:15, some pastors and other Christians are uncomfortable being around people who are grieving.
“From a chaplain’s perspective, one of the things the church doesn’t do very well is mourn with those who mourn and weep with those who weep,” Lyons said. “We don’t allow people much time in the Garden of Gethsemane. We sort of force them into Easter Day, and it’s not easy being with people in the midst of grief.”
ABOUT CENTRAL CHRISTIAN COLLEGE OF KANSAS
Central Christian College of Kansas is a four-year collegiate institution that strives to offer Christ-centered education for the whole person through four core characteristics: heart, soul, mind, and strength. Its history dates back to 1884, and it is located in the friendly town of McPherson, Kansas. Central is a strategically small college that offers over forty areas of residential study and a thriving online program for non-traditional students. To learn more about Central, go to centralchristian.edu/about. Visit the Foundation of Central Christian College to see what projects and events are coming up.