On March 29, Rev. Stephanie Leonard received a page, then another and another. She is pastor of Unity UMC in Webster Groves and is also a chaplain for SSM Health System in St. Louis. She pulled over on highway 270 to read the pages to see where she needed to go. She was being paged to a hospital and was receiving multiple requests from different departments relating to two patients. She was the chaplain on call, and both patients had just died.
When she got to the hospital, she started to enter the room of one of the patients, a man in his twenties. As she reached for the door a nurse came running down the hall, yelling, asking her to stop. The nurse then said they had not yet determined if the man was COVID-19 positive. As she explained this, she was also posting multiple signs on the door, warning people not to enter and advising of new protocols.
The man had been brought in by his girlfriend. The doctor felt uneasy contacting the man’s mother, and the girlfriend was hysterical and could not tell his boyfriend’s mother that he had died. Leonard was the person to tell her. The hysterical girlfriend was grieving so, her cry could be heard throughout the entire emergency room. She also had a terrible cough. But she was able to dial the man’s mother on her cell phone and hand off the phone to Leonard. Leonard then told the woman about her son and asked her to come to the hospital. Leonard, now wearing a mask and gloves, met the patient’s mother at the entrance to the hospital, embraced her and walked her and her husband back to a private room. She then took her to see her son’s body.
“It was a really bad Sunday,” Leonard said.
The next day, she got a call from a parishioner who was sick. She went to visit her and found she was so sick that she could barely stand on her own, so she took her to the hospital. Later she got a call from the woman, who told Leonard she had just tested positive for COVID-19.
Things had just escalated quickly.
“When I start to feel overwhelmed, I just lift up a prayer and say, ‘Lord, it’s starting to rain’,” Leonard said.
At times like this, Leonard relies on the Lord and her faith foremost, but she also had some additional help – her experience as an Iraq war combat veteran where she served as a Chief Warrant Officer in the Missouri Army National Guard.
“My combat and military experience really helps me stay flexible,” Leonard said. “Things were very fluid here for a couple of weeks, and my military experience helped me to be able to focus on what I needed to do.”
Leonard contacted her doctor at the VA hospital. They had a specific protocol. The first triage nurse she consulted with advanced Leonard on to the second triage nurse, who told Leonard she needed to self-quarantine for 14-days.
Leonard’s husband is in a high-risk category as a cancer survivor. He stayed at another property that they own, and she went into a lonely two weeks on quarantine. She continued to do only meetings and dedicated some time to her work as a cohort with the Missouri Conference Planter’s Academy, a year-long program for pastors who intend to start something new.
Leonard did experience fear at this time, but not for her own health but rather for her family, particularly her husband.
“I did not want to compromise his health in any shape or form,” she said.
Her husband did check in on her, and they all wore masks and gloves, sanitized doorknobs and kept their distance. Leonard has a niece who is a physical therapist at a hospital in Philadelphia where COVID-19 was prevalent, and she was helpful.
“I was blessed to have her calling me every day, checking on potential symptoms, asking if I had a headache, runny nose or cough,” Leonard said.
Leonard’s parishioner who was COVID-19 positive has recovered, and Leonard remained healthy during her quarantine. Leonard is now looking forward to making rounds at the hospital again.
“Saint Mary’s talks about being the healing presence of God, and it is so true. There’s nothing like it,” Leonard said. “I feel like I’m stepping onto holy ground when I go there. Being among the doctors, nurses, patients and their families, it’s a holy space.”