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Sacred Steps: A Hospital Chaplain Finds Joyful Sorrow For COVID-19 Patients Facing Death

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Skye Heritage
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Sarah Byrne-Martelli received her doctorate from Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary in 2019, becoming the first ever woman to do so.

In this story from The Spiritual Edge, we meet Sarah Byrne-Martelli, a hospital chaplain who is caring for COVID-19 patients when their families can't visit because she believes no one should die alone.

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Credit Sarah Byrne-Martelli
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Sarah Byrne-Martelli, a chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital, is fitted for a mask and protective gear, to sit and pray with COVID-19 patients at the end of their lives. 

She remembers being fitted for her medical grade N95 mask on her first day back at work during the pandemic. 

“They have a kind of metal piece over your nose and you’re supposed to push it through to the back of your skull for 10 seconds, really hard,” she says. The mask suctioned to her face like a vacuum. Then came the face mask and a sugar spray, and they held up a poem for her to read aloud, to determine whether the mask fit tight enough.

When she enters the room of the first COVID-19 patient she meets in person, her glasses start to fog, and she wonders, “Is my mask working?”

It was the spring of 2020 during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The city was under lockdown for the first time, as the death count was rising. Ambulance sirens had become a civic soundtrack, while people stressed about where and how to get their groceries, and they applauded frontline workers from their balconies at eight o'clock every night. 

Sarah is one of these frontline workers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, which is a world renowned teaching hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School in Boston. However, she’s not a physician or a medical worker. Rather, she’s a chaplain in the palliative care department -- the person who sits with you and prays with you and your family, during a patient’s last days of life.

Instead of heavy robes or stiff collars, Sarah typically favors skirts and dresses and black patent leather clogs, which are the kind you see doctors and nurses wear because they're on their feet all day, and her hair is in what she self-proclaims a permanent messy ponytail. She doesn’t bother to correct most of her patients who assume she’s Catholic. In reality she’s a trailblazer in the Eastern Orthodox Church, as the first woman in her denomination ever.

She laughs as she recalls: “Like I had these ridiculous pictures of me with like all very, very bearded, Orthodox priests. It's like one of these things is not like the other."

Listen to the full story by clicking the audio player button above. 

This story is part of a series called "Sacred Steps" produced in collaboration with KALW’s "The Spiritual Edge" and USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: The audio version of this story incorrectly states the religious affiliation of Sarah Byrne-Martelli. It is Eastern Orthodox.