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A hospital chaplain reflects on two years of work during COVID

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

It was hard to comprehend the idea that thousands of people would die in the U.S. from a novel coronavirus when the pandemic began. Now, two years later, so many more than that are gone. One million Americans have been lost to COVID.

STEPHANIE RAMOS: It didn't matter how old you were, didn't matter your race. If you were a dignitary or a sports figure, it didn't matter. This COVID could touch you and change your life forever.

SIMON: Stephanie Ramos, like many of us, first heard of COVID-19 when it was on the other side of the world. But then...

RAMOS: It was on the other side of the wall of where I was, and things began to change.

SIMON: Stephanie Ramos is a chaplain at the Los Angeles County University of Southern California Medical Center. Chaplain Ramos recalls how that first wave of infection and death reached into her and her colleagues and got to her in all ways.

RAMOS: You know, every morning, the chaplains have reflection, and after that reflection, then the numbers would be told to us. And it just seemed to just keep creeping up and creeping up and creeping up. And it's - it was a lot to hold in a human heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAMOS: No patient was left alone. You know, we were always there, even when family couldn't be there. And that was one of the things with COVID - that family members, due to protocol, could no longer come in. Or if it was a moment of death then a few could go up, and the rest had to be on, you know, the tablet and seeing their loved one either passing away or passed and listening to their hearts, telling you about this person who was just so wonderful in life and now in a moment were gone. Walking into this room with a mom who has fourth-stage cancer - she shared with me in tears that her 20-year-old son was in another hospital, going to be extubated from COVID. And she just sobbed and sobbed. She said, I can't be there for my little boy because I'm here. She said, can we just pray, Chaplain? Can we pray because I really want to just hold my baby boy, and I can't?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAMOS: My family is very supportive, but at the time when the COVID began, they were more worried for me. It worked through until I came home with COVID, until I gave them COVID. And at that point, I felt a lot of guilt. And for them it was a long two weeks. But for me, it went on for three months.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAMOS: When I returned to my ministry, I found that I was more humbled, that I would talk to the families when I had the tablet or they were in my presence and we were in front of their family members. And I would ask them to have patience with their loved one that was just trying to make it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAMOS: I lost some very good friends. A friend of mine, a mentor - he was in the hospital with COVID, and he was constantly texting me about how he was feeling. And then it stopped. There was not another text. And I would text, and there was nothing. It was just hard to think that he wasn't there. My dear friend, my comadre - she was, you know, in the hospital three weeks, and she was gone. There were just constant people I was close to. They were there, and they were gone. I miss them. I miss their presence, their laughter, their smiles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAMOS: To think that a million have now left us. And these were human hearts that we laughed with, we walked with, we journeyed with. And although our memories of them stay deep within us, we have to find within ourselves to gain that strength and move forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAMOS: Moving forward is getting up every morning. Say my prayers, place my feet confidently on Mother Earth, and take the next step because I never know what my day is going to hold. But I know my God goes with me, and I'll get through it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Stephanie Ramos, chaplain at the Los Angeles County USC Hospital, speaking with us for our series "Outbreak Voices."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.