Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Many articles are often written about masks at this time of year—how people are always hiding behind an “invisible” mask, a cover-up to hide their true identity. When people can learn to take off their masks by believing in themselves, accepting their true worth and embracing their vulnerabilities with others, they no longer need to pretend. There is a great sense of relief and nothing to hide. What a great sense of freedom it is to remove a mask.

Working as a chaplain in a hospital has allowed me to think about another side of wearing a mask.

It is not uncommon to see a sign outside a patient room in a hospital that says:

“STOP: CONTACT PRECAUTIONS.” Contact isolation precautions are used for people who carry infections, diseases or germs spread by touch. Any healthcare professional, family member or friend who enters this person’s room needs to wear a gown, gloves and often a mask to protect themselves and to protect the patient. Truth be told, many people (hospital volunteers, family, friends and even some healthcare professionals) sometimes avoid these rooms for various reasons.

Patients have expressed to me how hard it is when they are in this situation. They feel physically trapped because they are not allowed to leave their rooms. But more importantly, it makes them feel that much more lonely, isolated, depressed and frustrated about their predicament. The anger toward their illness, toward God and toward family surfaces very quickly. Seeing people who walk into their room dressed in a mask, gown and gloves makes them feel even more alienated and disconnected. Patients can be in these rooms for days, weeks or months. Therefore, when anyone does walk in, they are longing to feel that connection with others, to vent and to unload.

Over the past few years I have had many patients in isolated rooms, but in particular lately over the past few weeks. Each time I am about to enter a patient room that says “Contact Precautions,” I have often wondered what it is that makes the visit more challenging for me, as a chaplain, to enter. It must be more than the mere annoyance of putting on the gown, finding the gloves that fit properly or putting on the mask (although it does make it a bit uncomfortable to breathe). It is not even the fear of potentially getting the illness. So what exactly is it that makes me sigh before entering the room?

After much reflection I realized that in fact it is the mask. But not for the reasons mentioned above. I struggle with the mask because it is harder for me to be myself. Although my eyes, crucial communication tools, are visible, my face is mostly hidden. Patients are unable to see me. I am blocked. This physical barrier, from the moment I walk into the room, creates an immediate emotional distance between me and my patient.

I always pray before entering rooms such as these, that this person that I am about to meet will be able to look beyond my mask and connect with me.

By the end of the visit, usually these patients have in fact managed to look past my mask. How? Why? Because in these visits, I am more intentional and focused. I work harder to make my emotional presence stronger. Though my face is mostly hidden, I send clear messages in other ways. I invest more effort into forming a bond.

As always, my body language is crucial. However, in these cases, my eye contact is even more essential. My listening skills need to be extra sharp. My tone and words need to be that much more empathetic and measured. Most importantly, because my patients desperately want the connection, they are able to look beyond my “hidden face.” The patient is able to see past the mask because they attune themselves to the other ways I am conveying my presence to them. It is there. They feel it. They seek a connection and, if they want it, will find it. Most of the time, my visits with these people tend to be especially valued and appreciated.

Honestly, I do wish that I could just pull off the mask—it would just be so much easier, more natural. However, I have learned in these situations to compensate as best as I can for the physical barrier that separates us.

After seeing many patients recently needing contact precautions, I could not help but think that this must be an allegory for something because, after all, we are taught that our relationships in this world teach us something about our relationships with God.

The thought finally occurred to me: Though God’s physical state is hidden and his presence often feels concealed, God too finds other ways to communicate with us through other modalities. God communicates to us via our health, family, people we meet and challenges and experiences that we encounter daily. God is sending us messages and trying to make a connection. Though physically hidden and “masked,” he is intentional and present at each moment in our lives and actively communicating in other ways. If I want the relationship enough, I will somehow be able to establish a connection by focusing, attuning myself and appreciating the other modalities by which God is trying to communicate … exactly as my patients are able to do with me. Messages can still be received despite God’s “mask.” But are we able, and do we want, to receive them?

Communication seems so much easier face to face, without physical barriers. But if I have to see a value in a mask, it might be the recognition that I do have the potential to have a relationship, specifically with God, even while He is “hidden.”

It is as if God is saying: “This is the way it needs to be … for now. The mask needs to be on. Try to find me underneath the mask. I am here. I am trying. Are you?”

By Debby Pfeiffer

Debby Pfeiffer is a board-certified chaplain working at Morristown Medical Center through its affiliation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest NJ. She resides in Bergenfield with her husband and children. She can be reached at [email protected]