By Ernesto Sotomayor
“It was very surreal,” said Jason Perez as he looked off into the distance. “The whole city just stopped.”
Perez is an emergency medical technician in New York City. He struggled to describe his experience as a first responder in the initial epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It was kind of like being on some weird planet,” he said.
While the devastation of a global pandemic has touched most people’s lives, the pressures faced by frontline healthcare workers have been unique and immense. The rapid increase of cases day-by-day, the shortage of medical personnel, the lack of effective treatments and protocols, the scarcity of protective equipment, and the emergence of new variants have culminated in a heavy burden on many medical professionals.
Jehovah’s Witnesses working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, such as Jason Perez, were not immune to the mental distress; however, many found their faith proved to be a powerful means of coping.
Mahala Guerrier, a nurse practitioner in Boston, Massachusetts, took what she described as “hypervigilant” precautions to protect her family from contracting COVID-19. Despite her best efforts, she still caught the disease. Then her husband tested positive, and her infant son and elderly parents all showed symptoms.
For Guerrier, the mental anguish and worry for her family’s well-being was more devastating than the virus’s physical effects. “What was really debilitating for me,” said Guerrier, “what really burdened my sickness and exacerbated it was my anxiety.” Prayer and reading the Bible proved to be an anchor for her. “When I was afraid and my heart was pounding, I would just pray to God. And I would read the Bible. And after praying, I could feel my heart having calmness and peace of mind.”
She also compiled a list of scriptures she would constantly refer to. “As a nurse, we tell our patients who are suffering from painful illnesses to take pain medication every four to six hours. That way they keep their pain under control and at a tolerable level. The scriptures were my pain medication. When I read them every couple of hours, that’s what soothed me. They were my relief.”
American psychological and psychiatric associations, while not advocating or endorsing any specific religion, acknowledge the role spirituality and religious faith can play in coping with distress and trauma.
Lawrence Onoda, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Mission Hills, California, noted some ways spirituality can help, including giving people “a positive hope and meaning toward life, comfort by looking for answers and strength from a higher power, and a collective shared experience of support and community.”
For first responders working during the height of the pandemic, “every call was something tragic,” Perez said. He was confronting multiple cardiac arrests per day. “To do that every single day, multiple times a day, just having people die on you—I think I probably saw more death in those couple of months than I would have in a two-year span of my job, maybe a three-year span.” Perez said he felt very lonely. “The majority of people didn’t understand what I was going through.”
Perez found solace realizing that, while many others could not fully relate to what the pandemic was like for a frontline healthcare worker, he could pour out his feelings in prayer and find relief. “The best thing that helped me was just relying on God,” he said. “I prayed a lot for a positive attitude, to keep looking to the future, and to endure.”
One favorite resource for him has been jw.org, the official website of Jehovah’s Witnesses, with its collection of practical articles like “How to Beat Pandemic Fatigue” and short comforting videos such as “The Resurrection – Soon a Reality.” During his hour-long commute into the city, Perez used the website to listen to uplifting songs based on comforting Bible passages.
“I’m thankful that God helped me through that time,” Perez said. “God always gives us what we need to endure.”