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Cony High School graduate, now chaplain at Boston hospital, offers comfort, hope to coronavirus, COVID-19 patients, families

Erica Long, a graduate of Cony High School in Augusta, Bates College, the Harvard School of Divinity, says she is 'grateful' to be able to serve during coronavirus

BOSTON — Among the doctors and nurses fighting COVID-19 on the front lines at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston is a graduate of Cony High School in Augusta, Bates College, and Harvard Divinity School.

But Erica Long, 30, isn't in the medical field. Ordained as a Unitarian Universalist minister, she's a chaplain at Massachusetts General Hospital, offering comfort and love to patients suffering from the coronavirus, as well as families, doctors, and nurses.

For two months, Long has worked two days a week at the world-renowned hospital, and the rest of the time from home, offering comfort and support by phone and video.

Prior to the pandemic, Long and other chaplains at Mass General offered end-of-life support, led support groups for nurses and doctors, and Long led a spirituality group on the inpatient psychiatric unit.

But lately, those duties are interspersed with comforting patients with the coronavirus, who often spend their last days unable to be with family.

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"The patient was COVID-19 positive and the family wasn't able to be with her and I was unable to be with her," Long said of a recent case. "So the team and I worked together so that we had the family on a video call on Zoom and then I called into the phone in the room and the nurse picked up the phone and put it on speakerphone and so I could hear then family and the could hear me and we all said prayers together for the patient as she neared the end of her life."

"All of that can be hard and it can be heavy to take in," Long said.

So she and hospital staff have established a number of coping mechanisms, including creating serenity spaces, or "Zen Dens," throughout the unit, with battery-powered candles, fake plants and letters of support from elementary students -- all to give staff a retreat in which to find a few moments of peace.

There's also a new ritual in the acute ICU where Long works: In the past week or so, a number of patients have recovered enough from COVID-19 to be taken off ventilators so they can breathe on their own, often for the first times in weeks, she said.

"We do different things to celebrate that moment as a team because it means so much to us," she said." It's so exciting for the patient and their family. So we'll play music over the intercom or we'll all applaud the patient and the team and just sort of celebrate together how exciting that moment is and how special it is for the patient and for the team."

Among the most difficult parts of the pandemic has been the inability to be present with patients and their families, Long said.

"In spiritual care, we often talk about our work as being a ministry of presence ... in times of suffering and loss and change," she said. "For me, one of the hardest thing has been that I'm not at the hospital every day and I'm not in the rooms with patients who have COVID-19."

One recent case was particularly upsetting for Long. Near the peak of the surge in Boston, she spoke by phone to a woman whose mother was dying.

"I was sitting in my room talking to her on the phone and she was in her house and she was telling me about how her mom would cook all these huge Italian meals for everyone and invite everyone," Long said. "Now her mom is in the hospital on a ventilator and she's probably not going to make it. It was just really hard to not be able to be with that woman, to not be able to be with her mom."

Of the sadness and grief and loss, she said, "My training has prepared me to draw on my faith, my beliefs, especially my belief in the transformative power of love, and then I get to see that love both in how families care for patients, how nurses and doctors and the entire team care for our patients, and in the way that patients learn to care for themselves and love themselves."

"I'm just really grateful that I get to be there with the amazing patients and families and staff that I serve," she said.

At NEWS CENTER Maine, we're focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the illness. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: /coronavirus

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