2021: Off to a (not so) good start:
Most people I know were glad to say goodbye to 2020. Most people I know, talk a lot about the shocking start to 2021. For the people working in hospitals, care institutions and other healthcare settings, the start to this year was not the most promising ever. Like the trailer of a horror movie, the glimpses of what this year could look like, shoots through my mind:
A newborn baby loses her mother due to Covid days after she was born.
Another newborn’s mom is unable to visit her baby due to her Covid status.
A family loses their father, mother and sister due to Covid in one week.
A husband’s wife passes away in ICU. He cannot say goodbye, nor can he help with any funeral arrangements. He is in hospital himself due to Covid.
A feverish and exhausted Covid positive daughter has to battle to get her elderly mom in a car and rush her to the Emergency Room — her mother critically ill due to Covid pneumonia.
A single mom spends the early hours of the night in her car, knowing she needs to rush herself to the Emergency Room as she is struggling to breathe. But she is unable to find someone to take care of her two Covid exposed toddlers sleeping in the house.
Two babies are prematurely delivered, their moms fighting for their lives on ventilators. Unable to hold their newborns. No breastfeeding. Just the quiet chasm between moms and babies.
A father is unable to visit his wife and his newborn child because he is in the hospital with Covid. Their plans to renovate the house before the birth of their child stopped mid-track.
A wife drags herself out of her ICU bed to help her husband with his oxygen mask in the bed next to her. They might need ventilators soon and who knows if there will be ventilators for both. Most likely not.
A woman loses her brother due to Covid while she and her mother are hospitalised in different hospitals with Covid pneumonia. No family members are allowed to visit and console her.
A man survives Covid but has thoughts of survivor’s guilt as he makes it out whilst he had to witness others die ‘in the belly of the ICU”.
These are just a few snippets. Stories from people I know or have helped. A reality horror movie. Will this be how we will remember 2021?
If you speak to any healthcare worker in our hospital, they will be able to share dozens more stories like these. And worse. They will also be able to share their exhaustion. Fighting for lives hours on end, uncomfortable in full PPE (Protective Personal Equipment). Sometimes they even have to do resuscitation on patients whilst in PPE (that is like doing a full gym work out in a sauna). They become frustrated, feeling the heat of staff shortages and carrying the weight of caring. Day-in and day-out, in silence. They often have fears at night, knowing they are putting their lives and their family’s lives at risk. The day’s events might keep their minds hostage long after they clocked out from work. Despondency lurks, seeing so much suffering and death in such a short time.
They might suffer from compassion fatigue, burn-out and vicarious trauma (secondary trauma to such an extent that it severely affects their worldview). Alone, behind masks and visors that make any form of communication 1000 times worse. A LOT of pressure. Not enough help. Not enough resources. Not enough energy and resilience. Sometimes on the brink of losing hope.
Dr. Celia Mahne is a neurologist at N1 City Netcare Hospital. She experienced Covid isolation first hand in their home, and commented:
“Covid is wreed. Hy isoleer geliefdes van mekaar. Steel samesyn. Die ongeoorloofde drukkie voor isolasie is dalk die laaste. Jou geliefdes en versorgers se ondersteuning is ingeperk. Maskers verpersoonlik die onpersoonlikheid.”
Dr Johann A. Potgieter, a specialist surgeon who bravely jumped in to assist our short-staffed physicians in the Covid wards, verbalised the hands-on battle on Facebook this way:
“I have been wishing for a “new year.” This is not going to be a nice one. We are back at the drawing board. The new rules will not help. People are going to destroy whatever plans we come up with. So folks we are in it not to win it but to endure. That is if and when we survive. Good luck to you all.
If we survive. If.”
— Dr Johann A. Potgieter, posted 12 Jan 2021
Recently, my own frustration levels peaked: I tried to assist a new mother in the Covid ICU. It was time for her husband to register their prematurely born baby at the Department of Home Affairs. But they have not decided on a name yet. The father was not allowed to visit his wife. She could not communicate verbally, as she was still receiving oxygen via a tracheal tube (directly inserted into the windpipe in her throat). Her pencil grip was not strong enough to write the name down on paper. Yet, she tried. So desperate to communicate this important piece of information to the rest of the world. She tried and tried, but the handwriting was just not readable.
Back at the home front, 2021 has had its bleak start too. Our church congregation had to re-strategise how to keep connected. School start dates were postponed and with that came a whole cascade of changing dynamics. Extramural strategies had to change. Daycare strategies had to change again.
Parents are confused and despondent. Children yearn for connection with friends. During a family conversation about New Year’s resolutions, my 14-year-old daughter even said:
“Dit help nie om nuwejaarsvoornemens op te stel nie.” — Kaylin Grobler
Hevel: This meaningless life
Rather early into 2021, we learnt that the year might not pan out as we have hoped. It seems as if the author of Ecclesiastes could have lived among us in this time. This gigantic monster called Covid is dragging us right into the eye of the storm. There where we cannot hide from all the existential questions any more. Why are we here? Why do humans do what they do? Why do I do what I do? What is the purpose of living? Why am I still alive?
The apparent meaninglessness of life can quickly engulf us. During this season it does not take much to agree with the teacher in Ecclesiastes when he says:
“For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?” — Ecclesiastes 6:12, ESV
When faced with the harsh realities of life and death, people’s true nature gets exposed, as do our purpose for living. It’s all put under the magnifying glass. And it’s not all good. We are often driven by our hunger for success, happiness, comfort, security, connection. Not bad things in itself. In fact, I believe we are designed to yearn for these things. But when they become the ultimate goal in life, we lose the plot. Covid season exposes this. It also exposes our vulnerability. In Ecclesiastes, the teacher gives a clear explanation of our vulnerabilities. The main character in the book is like a middle-aged cynic who shows us that no matter how much wisdom we apply, some things are just not in our control. The critic in Ecclesiastes explores three themes:
- The March of Time
- Death happens to all of us
- Doesn’t matter how wise we live, life has a random nature and favour does not always go to the good people.
Watch the Bible Project’s dealing with Ecclesiastes and the other Wisdom literature here.
The moment we acknowledge that we will never be able to secure our own success, happiness, comfort, security and connections, it’s as if a release valve goes off. Then finally we can surrender.
Surrendering to the One who died on the Cross for people’s folly and sin. Surrendering to Him who has everything in His hand and can give all we need even in times of calamity. The one who makes this promise in Philippians 4:6-7
“…do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” — Philippians 4:6-7
Words from the brave and the wise
Maybe there is a perfect way to pass through the eye of this existential storm. Maybe someone in this life has all the answers. I am certainly NOT that someone. But this storm did make me look around quietly. I listen to insights that others have gained. I ponder on wisdom gained from history past. I observe how our hospital heroes bravely write new history. I take note of the fools whose foolishness gets exposed during this pandemic. I choose to shift the lens away from that. Existential wisdom gained, comes into focus. Different voices colouring the same picture:
”Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil— this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.” — Ecclesiastes 5:18-20 ESV
”In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.” — Ecclesiastes 7:14 ESV
”Wys maar weer net hoe vergangklik ons is!! Lewe elke dag of dit jou laaste is“ — Willem Feenstra, Engineer
“We are caught up in negativity. Ons is gesond en ons lewe. Fantasties man.” — Dr Johann A. Potgieter, Specialist Surgeon
“It is easy to feel quite useless when you just see everybody dying every day. But then you realise there are other people who are not dying, so we celebrate the small victories and goals that they achieve” — Eber Collop, Physiotherapist
“Mens kan nie anders as om nederig en dankbaar te wees as jy die 2 uitersters van Covid pneumonie sien uitspeel nie. Eers die verskriklike angs, lug honger en stress by toelating en voor oorplasing na die ICU. En dan by ontslag die ongebreidelde emosie, die trane, die ongeloof en die blydskap dat “ek” nie een van die dood statistieke is nie. Rou emosie wat jou hart raak en jou ewig sal bybly. I love my job.” — Dr. Johann A. Potgieter, Specialist Surgeon
“Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, but only empties today of its strength.“ — Charles Spurgeon, 19th Century Baptist Preacher
“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower, U.S. President, Crusade in Europe, 1948
“Wanneer jou geluk afhanklik is van die prentjie in jou kop, stel jy jouself oop vir ’n lewe van teleurstelling. Beplanning gee ’n belangrike raamwerk, maar ons moet onsself toerrus om daarvan te kan afwyk. Die lewe werk selde presies uit soos wat ons beplan of verwag.” — Shirley Swanepoel, Specialist Medical Representative.
“Time is the most valuable comodity we have. Spend it on yourself, your loved ones and give it to others as the most valuable possession you own.” — Dr. Anton van Wyk, retired Hospital Manager
“Because a good day isn’t about measurable achievements or what got ticked off the list. It’s about attitudes and actions and how they affected the warm bodies around us.” — Dalene Reyburn, Author, Dragons and Dirt, 2014
“Carve your name on hearts, not on marble” — Charles Spurgeon, 19th Century Baptist Preacher.
“We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions.” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Author, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community, 1954
”Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.” — Ecclesiastes 11:7-8 ESV
“Don’t you believe in the absolute sovereignty of God?” — Francois van der Westhuizen, Programme Manager and Covid survivor
“Daar kom ook iets ook positief uit die Covid-Positief. Die wêreld is vir eens saamgesnoer deur ’n tragedie. Almal het medelye. Covid laat jou weer besef hoe kosbaar jou geliefdes is. Tyd is min,” — Dr. Celia Mahne, Neurologist
”The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” — Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 ESV
The full picture
The picture is this. Live each day to do what you can do, enjoy what God blesses you with and endure where there is hardship. There is ultimate hope of being with Him and experiencing His peace and joy no matter what, in this life and the next. And the final words:
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?
And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, o you of little faith?
Therefore, do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
— Jesus Christ; Matthew 6:25-34