Halloween’s pretend scares are meeting some very real terror in the awareness of the spread and tragedy of the ebola virus. Reading the news of ebola becoming an ever-more real threat is sufficient cause for all of us to wonder about diseases, the nature of fear, and a renewed appreciation for health care workers.
The level of fear we experience is strongly, viscerally reminiscent of 30 years ago when a not-yet named disease later called AIDS caused panic and paranoia. A little more than 25 years ago, I was working as a student chaplain in a hospital, and the nursing staff asked me to talk to a dying young man. Before I came near his door, they outfitted me like an astronaut. I entered his room, and tried to strike up a conversation. It didn’t last long. A chaplain in an astronaut suits hardly bodes a welcoming, much less gracious presence.
What I told myself after that, and after I learned the solid, basic facts of AIDS transmission, was that I would not be an astronaut again. Or, that I would strive to wear the bare minimum of required PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) so as to represent the least barrier possible.
I spent hours and years in the 1990s working with pastoral care providers, teaching about disease transmission, fear and paranoia, and the dynamics of being graciously present with people dying of AIDS who were skeptical of anyone associated with church or Christianity. They had very good reason to be wary, given that the prevailing attitude from churchy types then was, “well, they deserve it.” Even those of us who participated in such pastoral care programs were considered suspect.
That was then, of course. Now, the fear is accompanied by tragedy: good, caring medical people are infiltrated with this awful, creepy, sneaky virus. This foreign sickness has now invaded the US; it’s getting closer and closer. We’re learning that the air travel screenings are…a screen.
Even the usual precautions are suspect. We wonder, “are they enough? Will this protect me even when I do everything right?”
Fear can be a good force: it can help us get things right and to be motivated to learn disease transmission, signs, symptoms. Fear can be an immobilizing and irrational force, too, of course. The disease of Ebola, the disease of AIDS, many, many diseases are awful, deadly, terrifying.
One of the dynamics of our fear has to do with doing our jobs. Hands-on care providers have no choice when a patient needs care. The emergency room workers already have procedures and symptoms to watch for. We don’t have the choice of saying, “I don’t feel like caring for this patient today.” The only alternative to learning proper procedures and doing our jobs is to..find another job. The isolation precautions signs on the hospital patient’s door are the commandment of good care–care for ourselves and for the patients.
If we don’t fear for ourselves, we at least have a healthy fear of not transmitting diseases to other patients or to our own families. A health are worker is not in isolation from community, despite the irony of practicing “isolation precautions.”
I am growing in my respect and admiration for many who put themselves at risk simply by following the call of duty, by caring professionally and from their hearts. Ebola’s terror requires that I have a sense of controlled fear–controlled so that I keep my wits about me, and do the right thing. Controlled so that when I encounter a person with an awful disease, I might actually focus on the person, not the disease. Try containing your anxiety when you’re in a very contagiously sick person’s room while wearing gloves, gowns, and a tight mask that makes it hard to breathe and harder to see because your glasses are fogging up and your breath sounds seem louder than normal.
Of course, Jesus would be in the thick of things. He would touch the leper–even 10 of them. Jesus knows the isolation and stigma of the leper colonies, and of those who would keep them away or make disparaging remarks about them.
As with most questions about how Christians engage the world, this virus provides the opportunity yet again to do our homework…both epidemiologically, and spiritually–so that we can stay in harmony with the Source of Life and Peace as we represent the One who calls us to be still, and know that God is God. Could we infect others with love and hope, peace and confidence, instead of the contagious and paralyzing fear that seems to prevail in news and social talk? Perhaps we could use this fear to address things we should be afraid of, like respiratory illnesses so many other diseases that are more likely to affect us. THAT would be a way to do our homework for the good of our communities.