Ps. 23: Medicine in the Valley of Deepest Darkness

Dr. Katherine Gergen Barnett is the vice chair of Primary Care Innovation and Transformation and residency director in the Department of Family Medicine at Boston Medical Center and Boston University Medical School.

By the time I walked out of the hospital, the winter dusk was long gone and night had pulled her curtain around the quieting streets of Boston. The first flakes of snow had left a thin blanket on the sidewalks and streets. Slowly, I unlocked my bicycle, donned my reflective gear and pulled my coat tightly around me. Despite checking the weather that morning, I had not anticipated the snow. My chest tightened in fear and I remembered the frightening premonition that had greeted me in the early morning hours.

As I peddled home, I thought through my patients I had seen that day—so many struggling with loss and sorrow. But there were also those whose stories brimmed with hope and redemption. The rich-timbered voice of a large Haitian woman well known to me replayed in my ears as I began to bike. Her son had been killed on the streets of Port-au-Prince and, for years, her grief and sorrow sat like a veil over her heart. Today she had come with new red lipstick framing her timid smile and, in her large arthritic outstretched hands, she held beautiful jewelry she had made as a gift for me. Abundance.

תַּעֲרֹ֬ךְ לְפָנַ֨י ׀ שֻׁלְחָ֗ן נֶ֥גֶד צֹרְרָ֑י דִּשַּׁ֖נְתָּ בַשֶּׁ֥מֶן רֹ֝אשִׁ֗י כּוֹסִ֥י רְוָיָֽה׃

You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my drink is abundant.

She was anointed by time, support and love, and now she was able to walk forward. Stretching back through these memories, my heart filled with gratitude as I peddled further.

And then, the shadow of fear appeared again. I tasted the snow and blood before I could understand what had happened. The car passing by was dusted with snow and the driver did not see my bike. Badly bruised and very scared, I walked away with my life. I had fallen on an old bank of snow—the only one left on the streets. And my husband and son were, amazingly, just one block away.

Later, in the quiet of the night, I lit a candle and called out to Ha-Shem (“The Name”). In return, I felt a calm. My work on earth was not over. It was time to breathe, reconnect, and dig even deeper.

Three years have passed since the bicycle accident. I have been deeply blessed to hold hundreds of hands, listen to the hearts of many, hear countless personal stories, and shed many tears of joy and sorrow with my patients. But no valley of darkness prepared me (or any of us) for the deep darkness of COVID-19.

גַּ֤ם כִּֽי־אֵלֵ֨ךְ בְּגֵ֪יא צַלְמָ֡וֶת לֹא־אִ֘ירָ֤א רָ֗ע כִּי־אַתָּ֥ה עִמָּדִ֑י שִׁבְטְךָ֥ וּ֝מִשְׁעַנְתֶּ֗ךָ הֵ֣מָּה יְנַֽחֲמֻֽנִי׃

Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness, I fear no harm, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me.

In the first weeks of the outbreak, our hospital was turned into a bunker, with many doors now either locked or guarded by men and women in HAZMAT-like suits; outside those doors the number of homeless people swelled, IV needles strewn on nearby sidewalks. As a physician responsible for overseeing the training and wellbeing of nearly forty primary care residents, I was engaged in hourly emergency meetings planning for battle. During the day, food tasted like sawdust in my mouth and, at night, I battled my own nightmares. The darkness had eclipsed the days and I was overcome with a gnawing, ravenous fear. Fear for the lives of those I love; fear for the hundreds of patients who call me their doctor; fear for our city; fear for our country. Health care workers; front line essential workers; the homeless; the incarcerated; nursing home residents and community members—none of us had enough protection or testing capacity, and too many people died frightened and alone.

In the ensuing weeks, however, our team grew from a set of terrified individuals to troops banded together in battle. And now we have our armor of masks, gowns, and gloves that prevent us from the human touch. But we have each other’s eyes. And we have each other’s courage. Though we still feel the long shadow of death breathing down our necks, we no longer turn away in fear, but rather toward it as an invitation to wake up.

נַפְשִׁ֥י יְשׁוֹבֵ֑ב יַֽנְחֵ֥נִי בְמַעְגְּלֵי־צֶ֝֗דֶק לְמַ֣עַן שְׁמֽוֹ׃

He renews my life; He guides me in right paths as befits His name.

There are no quiet candlelit moments in the hospital. Instead, the answers to our personal invocations come to us through the chaos of the wards, the beeps of machines, and the whirs of the ventilators. We are each other’s shepherds and hold the staff of love—an instrument that guides and binds us. When all of this is over, will we be able to continue to walk this path together in solidarity? Will we remember the ever-present shadow of death and still face down our fears? Can we continue to see into each other’s eyes without looking away?

 

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.