Father Nicholas Reid was scheduled for his first shift of chaplain residency in the trauma ward at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.
Instead, he wound up in the center’s Emergency Room, being treated for COVID-19.
“I didn’t think I would be at the receiving end of pastoral care before I was able to give it,” said Fr. Reid, a priest of the Jefferson City diocese who is serving in the U.S. Air Force Chaplain Corps.
He is about two months into a yearlong Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program in hospital chaplaincy in San Antonio
He has no idea how he came into contact with COVID-19, but he’s now back in uniform, fully recovered and hoping to help defeat the dangerous virus by donating blood plasma for research.
“One of the neat things about being able to donate convalescent plasma is that it will be used here at Brooke Army Medical Center, where I work as a chaplain,” he said. “In that way, I’ll be helping COVID patients both as a chaplain and a donor.”
He made his first plasma donation Aug. 6 at Fort Sam Houston.
Doctors and scientists hope to study his blood plasma along with that of many other donors to find antibodies that may help unlock the secrets of defeating the virus.
Antibodies are what the body uses to suppress specific antigens such as viruses or bacteria.
The question is whether a person with COVID-19 antibodies has some sort of immunity — temporary or permanent — to this strain of the virus.
Doctors also wonder whether carrying COVID antibodies in the blood prevents people from spreading the virus if they’re exposed to it again.
“I’ve been doing a lot of reading and am keeping any eye out about the blood science,” said Fr. Reid. “Right now, there are so many more questions than answers with all of this. That’s why they call it a ‘novel virus.’”
Had two illnesses
Fr. Reid thought he was having a bad case of allergies. He took some over-the-counter medications to clear up the symptoms and help him sleep.
“Then I woke up and eventually checked-off every COVID symptom,” he said.
When the fever and chills set in, he went to the hospital to get tested.
He had been taking CPE classes in near isolation since March and was about to begin in-person chaplaincy work at the hospital.
He was miserable but not as sick as many people become with COVID.
“I was never hospitalized and I’m fully recovered,” he said. “There a lot of people suffering significantly more than I did.”
His symptoms lasted for about 48 yours.
He found out he also had pneumonia and was given 10 days’ worth of antibiotics.
“By the time I took those, I realized most of the COVID symptoms were done, and I was just really tired,” he said.
“At the foot of the cross”
Fr. Reid couldn’t remember the last time he had felt so sick.
“It’s a very humbling experience,” he said. “I felt helpless. But I was getting a lot of support. I spoke with Bishop McKnight. I had lots of prayer and lots of support. Other chaplains were even dropping off dinner for me.”
Some of his own prayer was active, while some could be described as “just resting in the Lord.”
“I did a lot of resting in the Lord ... and taking medicine in the Lord ... and drinking water in the Lord!” he stated.
True to his lifelong devotion to the Blessed Mother, he prayed the Rosary.
“The Rosary is amazing,” he said. “You can say it even if you’re very tired. So I spent a lot of time at the foot of the cross with Our Lady.”
Fr. Reid is grateful to have been otherwise very healthy while taking on COVID-19.
“Eat your vegetables, get your sweats on and get some exercise,” he advised.
He believes that his COVID experience will help him become a better chaplain.
“Being at the receiving end of an Emergency Room visit, I came into contact as a patient with many of the people I would be working with as a chaplain,” he said.
He had been a hospital patient before, but now he can empathize with patients in a more specific way.
“Not knowing what’s going on, being separated from family, hearing unfamiliar words — all of that is happening to patients now in a way that makes any visit to the hospital much different from any previous visit,” he stated.
Signs of life
As soon as the symptoms went away and his time of quarantine expired, Fr. Reid was eager to start his next semester of studies and return to his regular work shift.
“I’m back to working out regularly, which I love,” he added. “It helps me not just physically but mentally.”
He saw a poster near where he works, inviting people who had been sick with COVID-19 to donate convalescent plasma.
It stated: “Convalescent plasma is the liquid part of blood from patients who have recovered from an infection. Antibodies present in convalescent plasma are proteins that help patients fight an active infection; in this case, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.”
“Naturally, this piqued my interest,” he said.
He read up on the subject at home and found out that eight military installations around the world are focusing on collecting and analyzing convalescent plasma from people who have recovered from COVID infection.
“And as God would have it, two of them are right here in San Antonio,” he said. “And one of them is right next door to the hospital I work in anyway.”
When he realized how useful it could be, he felt that he had no choice but to donate.
The process takes about 50 minutes, and he can donate once every 28 days.
His blood flows out through a needle in one arm, to a machine that collects the plasma and sends the rest of his blood back into him through another needle
He described the whole process as “interesting.”
“We’re in the process of learning so much about this,” he said. “Hopefully the scientific community will be able to use that to help prevent people from getting sicker and help them heal quicker.”
“All will be well”
Fr. Reid applied for and was selected last year for the CPE program through the Air Force Chaplain Corps.
He moved from his previous assignment in Alaska to Texas this spring, as the COVID pandemic was gaining momentum.
“This period of pandemic is requiring us to do many things differently in our daily routines and especially with the sacraments,” he noted at that time.
“It is all an adventure and the Lord is in charge,” he stated. “All will be well.”
Studying and working with him are a Muslim imam and four Protestant chaplains.
“We are a very diverse group, and we learn from each other,” he said. “We have great conversations about ministry and what ministries look like with a wide variety of patients.
“You can’t go through a CPE program alone,” he added. “Part of the dynamic is processing this with other people who want you to get better, asking questions and that kind of thing.”
He is convinced that CPE training will make him a better Air Force chaplain, wherever he serves.
“CPE is skills training that encourages leadership, effective communication, and all of this is done in a hospital setting,” he said.
“So while many priests or ministers or lay leaders use it specifically for work in VA or medical facilities, the skills will be value-added wherever else you are serving as a chaplain,” he said.
He suspects that his next assignment will be more of a traditional military chaplain role.
“But I will still have all these valuable resources to draw on — self-knowledge, communication, experience working in a trauma unit — in order to become a better officer and chaplain,” he said.
Fr. Reid asked for prayers for all the people who are susceptible to and suffering from COVID-19 and the disruptions it has been causing.
“For a speedy resolution from the scientific community, for a vaccine, for an awareness of the weight that any illness has on a family — that’s what we need to be taking to God right now,” he said.
It breaks his heart to see families who are not allowed to visit patients in hospitals due to the pandemic.
He loses sleep knowing that people who are sick are suffering alone.
“That creates such a tremendous burden on someone who has a cancer diagnosis or is recovering from surgery, that they’re not able to get visitors,” he said.
He asked for prayers for everyone involved in the delivery of healthcare — “the folks on the front lines: first responders, doctors, nurses, hospital staff — it’s affecting a lot of people.”
He’s inspired by how hard they work and how dedicated they are to helping patients.
“It really motivates me to get better at my job,” he said.
He applied a pastoral ministry term, “processing,” to the pandemic.
“We as a nation will be processing this experience for a very long time. Whether we want to or not,” he said.
He pointed to economics and people’s livelihoods, as well as damage to the social fabric and people’s need to spend time with each other.
“This isolation, it’s hurting a lot of people in ways we are unaware of, and there is not a tracker for those folks like there is for folks who test positive for COVID,” he said.