Dozens of times a day in Covid-19 wards in California, a scene like this takes place: A hospital chaplain watches the machine report his death.
Kristin Michealsen, a Los Angeles hospital pastor, stood by a man’s bed, holding his hand. His relatives gathered in their home for a few minutes from the hospital – they were not allowed into the hospital ward. The patient’s heart had just stopped. Ms. Michealsen, an ordained minister, watched a computer monitor as she accompanied the man for the rest of her life. Eighty beats per minute. Sixty. Forty.
In California, there were an average of 433 deaths a day last week. On Tuesday, it became the state with the highest number of deaths caused by the entire coronavirus, ahead of New York.
There are two ways to view the devastation of the virus in California in the depersonalized mathematics of the epidemic. As the most populous state in America, California has by far the most cases in the country – more than 3.4 million – and now the most deaths. But when adjusted to a large population, California has a lower mortality rate than 31 states and Washington DC
As a result of about 114 deaths per 100,000 people, the state’s New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts or Mississippi ratio is about. The gap between New York and California could be even greater if we consider the likelihood that New York underestimates deaths in the frenetic early stages of a pandemic because virus testing was so limited.
However, these mitigating statistics mean little to the families of more than 44,900 people killed by the virus in California. The numbers don’t mean much to chaplains either, like Ms. Michealsen, who was already watching the deaths of two other patients on the January day the picture was taken by an Associated Press photographer. Often he is the only other person in the room when death comes. Sometimes a nurse holds the other hand of a dying patient.
“When we enter this world, we are immediately surrounded by people – we have a human connection,” Ms. Michealsen said last week from the Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles. “I just think that when we leave this world, we have to be the same.”
The epidemic caused uneven casualties in California, with people living in the southern and agricultural Central Valley being hit much harder than those living in the north.
But even in San Francisco, where nearly 350 people have died from the virus, the cruelty of the pandemic — the inability of families to encircle their dying relatives, the disruption of ancient mourning rituals — bears it.
“In 15 years, I’ve never experienced the multiple loss layer we’re experiencing now,” said Naomi Tzril Saks, chaplain of the San Francisco Medical Center in Parnassus Heights. Like chaplains across the country, Ms. Saks and her colleagues did everything they could to remedy the cruel isolation of the disease.
“We magnified bands and violinists,” Ms. Saks said. “We magnified a man who was being held captive and hadn’t seen him in years before he died.”
Pastors participated in virtual spiritual exercises to avoid emotional burnout, Ms. Saks said. Some joined national support groups.
“There are stories and experiences from this pandemic that will stay in my body for a very long time,” Ms. Saks said.