Hospital Notes #4: When We Took Off Our Masks

The News

The World Health Organization said on Friday, May 5th, that COVID-19 no longer qualifies as a global emergency. The leaders of the hospital where I work took that news as the last item in their decision tree and lifted the mandatory mask order for all patients and staff. Of course, personal protective equipment is still required to limit the spread of infection in patient rooms where doctors have deemed precautions necessary, but everywhere else in the hospital–MASKS OPTIONAL!

Monday, May 8th, was my first fully-faced workday as a chaplain at Nemours Children’s Hospital.

It Was a Strange Day

All day long I was leaving my office, where for months I had been allowed to take off my mask, with a half-stuttered step thinking I had forgotten something. Not long ago, I walked all the way from my office to the employee parking garage without a mask. No one had said anything, but I felt like a fool when I realized what I had done. It was no longer foolish on Monday! The apprehension at my office threshold was a habit I needed to unlearn. I chuckled to myself several times as I forged ahead to meet many people again for the first time. It was a strange day.

I was in a patient room for several minutes, maybe a full six minutes, when the patient’s father blurted in Spanish, “Wait, are you Don Benjamín?” He hadn’t recognized me yet; and there I was chatting with him like I knew him! I wonder how that felt! It was a strange day.

Seeing the bottom of people’s faces was a bit like seeing a radio personality for the first time. Oh! That’s what they look like?! It’s disorienting. I had never consciously imagined their faces but when the reality of their face appeared it pushed away the unconscious expectation with a jarring sensation. It was a strange day.

It Was a Joyous Day

I was sitting on a bench in a hallway sending an email with pictures of the cabinets in the Kosher Pantry to the benevolent organization that restocks them. A patient’s mother whom I have known for seven months, stopped to get my attention. “Is that Ben? Wow, everyone is so beautiful. You are all so beautiful!” It was a joyous day.

I didn’t make the difficult transition to masked chaplaincy as I remember some of my friends doing. When the pandemic began, a friend of mine posted a masked picture of herself on Facebook. “Do my eyebrows communicate enough empathy?” she asked in the caption. It was kind of a joke; it was kind of the worst thing ever. I didn’t know what I was missing until, all of a sudden, I had it. When we took of our masks it was like putting on my full self. Fully faced, I felt more connected. The hubbub of the change on Monday was a bit distracting. All of the emotional content that needed to arise in my patient encounters was a bit washed out by the brightness of our mutual recognition. In the coming days, I am looking forward to employing the full musculature of my human face to love those who welcome me in their children’s hospital rooms. Monday brought a new upspringing of hope for all that we full-faced people are. It was a joyous day.

The nose might be more essential than I knew in the peripheral recognition capacity of the human eye. Like a weathervane pointing the direction of my gaze, my nose indicates to passersby that I am trying to catch their eye in the hallway. I had often wondered how someone could miss my nonverbal advance in previous masked attempts. Not that everyone ignored me before we took our masks off, but it seemed like no one did on Monday. My day was significantly fuller with cheerful greetings. It was a joyous day.

The Vulnerability of Having a Naked Face

We are so adaptable. In several years of wearing masks so often I have grown reliant on the mask, and many have told me it’s the same for them. How many unstifled yawns will now explode across the conference room table? How many wrinkled noses will now openly, no longer secretly, express disgust? How much more might my coffee breath waft where it is unwelcome?

The concealment of our faces has revealed the essential vulnerability of having a face at all. We communicate so much with them without trying; but to communicate love we need to try. This means some things must be stifled, intentionally imposed or carefully controlled. Uncovered and seen, more must be mastered. Our will to love requires purposeful faces. May we all get back into the habits of love, in lips, cheeks, noses and chins, all naked as well as eyes and brows.

Celebrate and Keep Up Your Loving Compassion

We’ve been through so much! Not just those who work in healthcare but everyone alive. The globality of a GLOBAL pandemic brings with it an unsought unity that makes such universally inclusive sentences possible. Although my Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and Emergency Department colleagues might deserve some place on the unrelished podium of been-through-so-much, we are ALL permanently changed by this pandemic. Some people I know haven’t worn a mask very often since July of 2020. Others, especially immunocompromised people are still wearing masks and maybe always will. Mostly, our half-faced experience did not end in a singular moment of celebration. Unfortunately, it fizzled and sometimes flamed in a rancorous debate about government control and what it means to love thy neighbor. There is never very much fanfare for the survivors. We lost so many lives. The less-than-adequately-acknowledged heaviness might overshadow the relief. As a society we in the United States did not do Covid-19 as a unit. It divided us further and created new lines on which we could side or not. We ALL suffered, but we did not all suffer the same. Nor do I suspect we will tell the story the same.

But here at Nemours, with the burning hot thrusters of “company policy” and “payroll department” we stayed on the same ship. One benefit of our togetherness was the strange, joyous day when we took off our masks. May 8, 2023. I hope I remember. Dear friends, may you find strange joy, too. Celebrate and keep up your loving compassion.

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