About 50 people gathered near the flagpole at East Georgia Regional Medical Center before nightfall Tuesday for a brief prayer service led by volunteer chaplains in support of the medical professionals and public safety personnel who have struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as of patients and families.
Three of the hospital's volunteer chaplains led Tuesday's prayers: Joey Fennell, a licensed professional counselor who is also one of the pastors at Connection Church; the Rev. James Byrd, associate minister of Second Saint John Missionary Baptist Church; and Deacon John O'Malley of Saint Matthew Catholic Church.
"It's an honor just to serve alongside the staff here at East Georgia and support our community and patients and families who are here each and every day," Fennell said in opening remarks. "It's certainly not in a normal time. We thought that we were going to be a little bit further down the road, but here we are really at another height, so we're just calling on people to come together, calling on our community to pray."
For patients …
Byrd opened the prayers with one specifically for COVID patients and their families.
People turn to God "in times of fear and uncertainty, especially when they are walking through the shadows of the Valley of Death," Byrd said, naming "the shadows of COVID-19 and its menacing delta variant."
He prayed for relief from "fear, anxiety and feelings of isolation" among those receiving treatment.
For healers …
O'Malley in his prayer thanked God for the nurses, physicians and other medical staff at EGRMC.
"We thank you for their dedication, persistence, many shifts and hours they have spent caring for their patients over the year-plus of the COVID-19 pandemic, and especially over the last few months during the current spike of the pandemic," he prayed. "We thank you for the care, love and professionalism they have shown."
He asked for blessings on them so that they may "heal and be healed."
And community …
Fennell concluded by praying for the community as a whole. He also made special mention of first-responders such as emergency medical technicians, paramedics and firefighters, a number of whom attended the gathering.
During this pandemic, people in the community have seen their loved ones suffering and some are "forced to make decisions that we thought we'd never have to make, especially because of a virus," he continued. Inside the hospital, medical professionals have served in a situation like a "war zone," caring for people "who are desperately fighting for breath each and every day."
"In the year 2021, God, we never thought that we'd be standing in front of East Georgia Regional Medical Center praying in this way, but here we are," Fennell said. "Here's where we find ourselves today, and God, it's our prayer that this community, as it does and has in so many different instances, gathers together, comes together and unites itself."
The hospital has about 10 volunteer chaplains on its list, Fennell said when asked.
"It's been kind of up and down through COVID, of course," he said. "Not everybody is comfortable being in the hospital, but they're certainly supportive in other ways."
The pandemic has been a challenging but essential time for hospital chaplains, who minister both to patients, sometimes in their final moments of "transitioning" from this life, and their family members, Byrd said.
Stephen Pennington, East Georgia Regional Medical Center's CEO, thanked the chaplains and said they had been asked to give "words of encouragement and support for our patients, their family members and also our employees … who are working very hard to provide excellent care for our community and our patients."
The hospital leadership plans various ways to show support during a "challenging and extremely stressful time," he said.
Kristie Perkins, RN, wearing a mask like everyone else who attended, stood at one edge of the gathering during the prayers. EGRMC's director of surgical services, she said it was good to see the show of support. Now extending more than a year and a half, the fight with COVID has been especially tough on staff members recently, she acknowledged.
"We planned for the worst earlier, and it didn't get as bad as we thought initially, and then we've had a surprise, you know," Perkins said. "We thought we were over it when all of a sudden it's back worse than ever. We did have processes in place from last year, so we've been able to follow some of those processes and that's been helpful, but the number of patients has just been overwhelming."