Frank Kedzielawa spent much of the last year inside a hospital red zone, watching Covid-19 bring down its wrath indiscriminately.
“We've sent people home who are 102 and I've done death notifications for people who are 19 years old and 24 years old,” said Kedzielawa, a chaplain who has served patients and staff at Sisters of Charity Hospital, St. Joseph Campus since last spring.
He also witnessed acts of compassion that made a difference in even the most daunting of times.
“It's been kind of a long haul, so you don't want people to lose heart,” Kedzielawa said. "You want them to remain with a steadfast spirit and know that this will one day come to an end, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
The latest glimmer came this Holy Week, slightly more than a year after Catholic Health chose St. Joseph to house the sickest of Covid patients from all of five of its hospitals. The Cheektowaga hospital admitted its last pandemic patient on Thursday and began to convert the facility for emergency, outpatient and rehab care.
“At the beginning, people were nervous and anxious,” Kedzielawa said. “The vast majority of employees are married and have spouses at home and children at home, so that was a large concern on their part. And yet they still felt that this was their calling. This was where they were supposed to be.”
The start was rocky. Doctors and specialists – buoyed by years of academic and professional success – struggled with the inability to stop the dying. A small number asked to be reassigned.
“People die at hospice, or they die in the emergency room, or they die on the table during high-risk surgery,” Kedzielawa said. “Nurses could have gone months without a patient dying in a bed on a floor in a hospital. And here they were sometimes losing three or four or five people on a shift. It was unnerving. Nothing they were doing was working.”
Funeral directors and their staffs felt the crush of too much business, fear of contagion, or both, he said, and some expressed reluctance when called to St. Joe’s.
The hospital was busiest in the first three months of the pandemic and the weeks after the winter holidays. Death rates have fallen dramatically since early in the pandemic because of better treatments and new vaccines.
Thirty-two patients remained at the hospital on Friday and will stay as long as needed, Catholic Health spokeswoman JoAnn Cavanaugh said.
A journey of faith
Kedzielawa, 70, a single, semiretired lawyer, took a different path to the Covid treatment center than most who have served there during the pandemic.
It flowed from a faith culled over decades, starting at St. Theresa Catholic Church in childhood in Niagara Falls and while in college and law school in Ohio. It flowered through service to St. Stephen Catholic Church on Grand Island, the town where Kedzielawa has lived since 1980.
A growing list of volunteer work included teaching confirmands at the parish, helping with worship readings and the Eucharist and, two decades ago, lending his talents toward building a new church. A dozen years ago, he decided to become a deacon.
While studying for the diaconate, a five-year process, Kedzielawa worked back to back as a chaplain at Buffalo General Medical Center and Erie County Medical Center. He was ordained in 2013 and assigned to serve St. Stephen’s, along with the Buffalo diocese.
As Catholic Health prepared to convert St. Joe’s into its Covid-19 treatment hub, he was among thousands to receive an email gauging his interest in working there. He prayed about it for several days, then offered his help.
“I kind of analogize it to the Gospel scene where Jesus is calling Peter to step out of the boat and walk on the water, and trust him that he’s not going to sink,” Kedzielawa said. “God wasn't calling me to get sick. He was calling me to help.”
In a region known for its neighborliness, the commitment was hardly unique. More than 1,100 workers eligible to serve there, including 200 from outside Catholic Health, pledged they would do so, Cavanaugh said.
Registered nurse Rebecca McCormick-Boyle, Catholic Health chief integration officer and a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral, was called in to forge a new control and command structure. She set up green, yellow and red zones with different safety requirements. A medical team taught infectious-control measures to all workers.
A staff of “on-ers and off-ers” in red transition zones continue to painstakingly assure that no one cuts corners as they pull on full personal protective equipment before entering and remove it completely before leaving.
“Anything that goes into the red zone can never come out again,” Kedzielawa said. “One of the priests early on forgot that he went in carrying one of his ritual books. He had to toss it in the trash.”
Patients who arrive with photos are told to be sure there are copies at home, because they will be incinerated at discharge. Nurses and other staff often combine snack, beverage and bathroom breaks to limit the number the PPE changings.
Patients suffer the most. Despite the unpredictability of who, specifically, might get sickest from the still new coronavirus, the majority tend to be older.
Faith leaders in the region have learned to adjust sacred gatherings as they hope and pray for better days.
Exhausted, frightened and struggling to breathe – regardless of age, sex, color, creed or political leanings – their caregivers serve as a lifeline.
For many, so does God.
Kedzielawa is one of 11 Catholic Health chaplains who attends to St. Joe's. For safety reasons, they have been the only ones to minister to patients. Close family members may visit only if it’s clear that life is fleeting – though that can sometimes be hard to tell.
“When I first started, I thought I was going to stay with a patient and a nurse was telling me this gentleman was not going to make it through the night,” Kedzielawa said. “Three weeks later, he was still alive, so I learned you can't sit at the bedside.”
Chaplains, nurses and others do their best to stay close to those they believe are in their last hours – though other duties also beckon.
Throughout the pandemic, the chaplains have shared words of encouragement, prayers and holy books with any patient, or staff member, who wishes.
“As I visit patients, everybody feels differently about praying or beliefs, so I try to read the situation,” Kedzielawa said. “I let them know that if they need anything from the spiritual care department, let the nurses know and we'll bring it up. Whether it's a Bible, rosary, prayer card, the Quran, whatever their tradition is, we have something for them.”
The faith leaders all understand the guiding principles of counsel and support. Their job is to listen, figuratively walk with those who feel alone, and refrain from the urge to fix things beyond their control.
That means providing patients with what comforts they can. That includes enabling loved ones to visit by smartphone or tablet, and meeting close family members in the lobby, guiding them toward the red zone and helping them don their PPE during the only time they may visit in person – when a patient nears death.
“I'll walk them in to the patient,” Kedzielawa said. “They are usually allowed about 20 minutes to a half hour. That's based on medical advice that the less time they spend, the less likely they are themselves to become infected.
“Most of the patients at that point are nonresponsive. I tell their families the last sense to go before someone passes is the sense of hearing, so go ahead and talk to your mom or dad or your wife, your husband, as if they could actually hear you, because they can.”
Prayer often punctuates the final goodbye. There are thanks for a life well lived, and the lessons and memories that will linger. There are calls for a peaceful passage into death, and a reconnection with loved ones already gone and dearly missed.
The experience leaves many broken with grief, including staff.
“The majority of ministry here is presence, it's not a time for teaching,” Kedzielawa said. “You just want them to understand that you're listening, and hopefully that you feel their pain. That's all you can do. There's nothing to be said, no magic words that can alleviate that kind of pain or loss for someone.”
"Deacon Frank," as he is called at the hospital and in his parish, considers his duties a privilege, his perch at St. Joe’s a position that offers the most profound of spiritual observations.
“The suffering and the grief, and the anguish and the loss, is simply a reflection of the breadth and the depth and intensity with which they love that person. And it's a real viewpoint into the depth and intensity with which human beings can love.”
“How many people,” he added, “volunteered to come over here? Well, that's a reflection on how much human beings love and care for each other.”
The staff often huddles for a small prayer when a patient is struggling mightily or has died.
“I like to point out that they are the finger of God at work in the world,” Kedzielawa said. “When Jesus healed, he didn't just snap his fingers. And most of the time, he didn't just say something. But it was done with a physical touch to another human being.”
He tends to work the evening shift Monday to Thursday, hours when the hospital is quieter. That generally deprives him of the most joyous hospital occasion: helping to wheel a discharged patient to loved ones outside.
The Rev. Lou Klein, hospital chaplain and pastor of Queen of Martyrs Church in Cheektowaga, tends to lead a prayer reflection an hour or so into the morning shift; Kedzielawa does the same for the night shift at about 8 or 8:30 p.m.
His schedule tilts in favor of the second shift – and so do his treats. Early in the pandemic, the free meals delivered regularly to the hospital were long gone by the time the night crew arrived, so he began to bring in cookies on Monday nights to share with the group. That tradition will continue into his last week of service to St. Joe’s.
Others who deserve thanks and praise, he said, include nonmedical front-line workers who make sure staff and patients are fed, those who clean and sanitize all corners of the hospital and everything in between, including patient rooms, and those who transport patients.
It is time to celebrate the closing of the Covid hospital, a sign that the pandemic wanes and that most patients who have arrived at St. Joe's in recent months survive.
“Think of the days and the hours and the weeks and the months that they've been able to spend with their family and friends at home,” the deacon said. “That’s because of the good work that the staff did in healing those people.”
He will continue to pray for those who scatter to other Catholic Health settings after an experience they will find impossible to forget.
The same goes for patients who healed and those who weathered loss during the pandemic.
Regardless, he said, “There will be Easter Sunday after this.”