USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Sarah Byrne-Martelli: A Hospital Chaplain Finds Joyful Sorrow For COVID-19 Patients Facing Death

Sarah Byrne-Martelli: A Hospital Chaplain Finds Joyful Sorrow For COVID-19 Patients Facing Death

Sarah Byrne-Martelli: A Hospital Chaplain Finds Joyful Sorrow For COVID-19 Patients Facing Death

This radio documentary was produced by KALW’s The Spiritual Edge, with the support of CRCC’s global project on engaged spirituality. Listen to it on The Spiritual Edge’s website.

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.”

Click here to listen to the radio documentary on kalw.org.

Heidi Shin is a journalist fellow with the Spiritual Exemplars Project.