coronavirus

Volunteers and the Impact of Coronavirus

By Alistair Shanks

Driving down the winding roadways of the Laguna Honda campus, the first indication that something is amiss is the signs. Laminated signs affixed to A-shaped, folding barricades declare in bold yellow letters against a black background: “BY ORDER OF THE SF HEALTH OFFICER NO VISITORS ARE PERMITTED ON CAMPUS.”

With 780 beds, Laguna Honda Hospital is one of the largest skilled nursing facilities in the country. Our residents are the most at-risk segment of the population for the potentially dire consequences of COVID-19. They are largely elderly with a variety of chronic health conditions. Zen Caregiving Project volunteers serve patients near the end of life with terminal and chronic conditions and designated for comfort care on the Palliative Care Ward, S3. Some have families; many do not. Some have been estranged from family for years, even decades, and are without any social support network whatsoever.

Our volunteers received notice on March 2nd that all non-essential personnel would be barred from the campus. A few days later, families were also prohibited from visiting. In light of the threat posed by COVID-19, it was a necessary and timely intervention. But it has also left residents stranded and more alone. To fill that gap, volunteers have been sending cards and even reaching out via email to some residents. It is a small gesture, but one that will let them know they are not forgotten.

Over time, the volunteers who serve on S3 develop deep and intimate bonds with residents who live there. We are witnesses to their struggles and suffering as well as their joy and wisdom. The open secret about sitting with death and dying and approaching suffering with an undefended heart is that the residents become our teachers. As much as we give to them in the form of time and attention and love, we get back from them many times over in love, appreciation, and insight. This may be unspoken, or it can be explicit.

During a visit with a resident in his room, one volunteer revealed to him that he was a retired ophthalmologist. The resident, an elderly Filipino man, said this:
“Eyes are a mystery.”
“How so?” asked the volunteer.
“You can’t understand eyes until you know what they’ve seen.”

It seems that we are about to see more than we bargained for. Our certainties have been pierced. There are no guarantees. We can only meet this moment with open hearts. I feel myself teetering between a sense of unreality and the relentless reality of it all. And I am grateful for the love and privilege that I do have: a strong community of colleagues and caregivers, a devoted partner, being able to work from home.

Outside it is spring, and trees are blooming all over the city, plum and magnolia. The days are becoming longer, stretching into the evening, a whisper of promise. There is a sense of what Pico Iyer refers to as “radiance and melancholy.” The world is quiet. Almost everything feels frozen in time. There is a stillness, an air of expectancy, a collective breath holding as we wait for the wave to hit, an eerie pregnancy to this moment. It is almost time for the cherry blossoms.

NOTE: On Wednesday, March 25th, it was announced that three staff members of Laguna Honda Hospital had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Love in the Time of Corona

There is no need to tell any of you what a challenging time we are living in. Life has really changed, and it has happened very quickly. There are so many uncertainties we are all facing. How bad will the pandemic get? How long will it last? Who will be the next among us to fall ill? In such times, what we need most is love.

I am moved by the irony of how my heart has opened to strangers at a time when we are cautioned against being out in public. Sheltering in my home with my wife and dog, I am constantly awakened to the present moment by deep feelings of appreciation for people I don’t even know. I am feeling an urge to thank everyone- the mail carriers, the store clerks, the employees of Zoom, neighbors staying out of their cars and walking around the neighborhood, the children playing soccer in the street, the neighbors who planted the flowers in bloom, the utility workers who keep at it, the medical workers who are hidden in the places I hope I don’t visit anytime soon. The list is endless.

In our Mindful Caregiver Education courses, we teach ways of keeping compassion activated amidst the demanding circumstances of caregiving. We draw upon the ancient wisdom traditions and the most recent science to explain how to access our deep and innate well of compassion. I am finding these teachings extremely relevant during this time of Corona.

For many, accessing compassion for strangers is extremely difficult. In the world we live in, this is quite common. Thupten Jinpa, in his wonderful book A Fearless Heart, explains that acknowledging two essential truths about all humans is helpful for breaking down the barriers we put up between us and strangers. One, all beings strive for happiness and freedom from suffering. And two, beings are dependent upon each other for their very existence; we survive because of our interdependence. When we stop to think about it, we see it is absolutely true. Just take a moment to think of all the beings who have played a part in bringing you your most recent meal. Again, the list is endless.

When life has been turned on its head and I am wondering if there will be toilet paper on the shelves of my local market when I run out, I can’t help but think about those people who are working hard to see that it is there for me to purchase. And, when I wake up in the morning and remember that I am not going into work, I think of all the faces I will not be seeing. And, when I turn on the radio or pick up the newspaper, I think of all the people who have been impacted by this pandemic. How are all these strangers holding up?

Just like me, all beings want to be happy and free from suffering. And, just like me, all beings are dependent upon others. The wise teacher Ram Dass said, “We are all just walking each other home.” Even when we are confined to our homes, nothing could be truer. So, when fear and feelings of isolation creep in, turn toward compassion. Turn toward love. It is really needed right now. And, I think it is what will allow us to emerge out of this difficult time better off than we were before.