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At the Heart of the Crisis: Personal Reflections on COVID-19

It is no exaggeration for me to say CMDA has had an influential impact on my adult spiritual life. Since 1999, I have been active with CMDA in one way or another. In 2017, my work with the New York City chapter was significantly increasing, and I found myself more interested in ministry activities than even my own private practice in surgery. After a couple years of praying and planning, I officially began my full-time ministry as the NYC Area Director on March 1, 2020. There was no way humanly possible we could have foreseen what would occur in NYC that same month.

by Christian Medical & Dental Associations®

It is no exaggeration for me to say CMDA has had an influential impact on my adult spiritual life. Since 1999, I have been active with CMDA in one way or another. In 2017, my work with the New York City chapter was significantly increasing, and I found myself more interested in ministry activities than even my own private practice in surgery. After a couple years of praying and planning, I officially began my full-time ministry as the NYC Area Director on March 1, 2020. There was no way humanly possible we could have foreseen what would occur in NYC that same month.

The first official case of COVID-19 in New York City was confirmed that same day on March 1, 2020.[1] It was a healthcare professional who had just returned from visiting her family in Iran. Two days later, an attorney who commuted to Manhattan was identified as the second case.[2] In hindsight, it is clear these two cases were only the initial cases identified, as Coronavirus was already spreading in NYC. A genomic study of 84 early coronavirus isolates from one NYC hospital system revealed numerous different strains originating from Asia and from Europe, as well as domestic strains from within the U.S., suggesting multiple strains converging as early as January (and possibly earlier).[3] This should not be a surprise given the ethnic diversity of NYC, as well as the high traffic volume of its airports. It was a perfect storm in the making.

As the number of cases skyrocketed, anecdotal reports from CMDA members in New York were grim. Emergency departments were overrun with sick patients, intensive care units were overwhelmed by patients requiring ventilators and floor patients were rapidly deteriorating and dying before they could be attended to. Healthcare professionals were running out of masks, at times not even able to get simple surgical masks, let alone N95 masks. Many of them were wearing the same mask for days and weeks at a time. Residents and attendings of all fields were put on “COVID deployments” staffing ICUs and floors, regardless of whether they had any training in adult intensive care or pulmonary care medicine.

Stories from the frontlines were shocking. Even as early as March it was evident healthcare workers would pay a high price due to COVID-19. Countless healthcare professionals became sick with COVID-19 as they took care of the sick and the dying. Some even knew exactly when they contracted Coronavirus because they deliberately chose to care for specific patients who were suspected of or diagnosed with COVID-19 without adequate protection. Many recovered, but they were sick for a significant duration of time, often with high fevers and deep fatigue.

In addition to the physical toll, we anticipated the pandemic would have significant psychological and spiritual impact on healthcare professionals. What we could not anticipate was how significant it would be. Starting on April 19, we started a Zoom meeting called OASIS, a spiritual respite meeting FOR healthcare professionals BY healthcare professionals. The meetings are designed specifically for embattled professionals on the frontlines to find a safe place. We intentionally gathered to worship, share and pray together in Zoom breakout rooms, because where the Spirit of God is, there is freedom and healing. We needed Him more than ever in the midst of these storms. I know these OASIS meetings have been a lifesaver for many of our healthcare workers We need to be able to share and unburden what lies heavily on our hearts, to cry out to Jesus our Savior to come and rescue us, and to lift up one another in prayer knowing He will answer. The OASIS meetings, now occurring twice weekly, are still a spiritual respite for many in New York.

On April 27, we were all shocked to hear in the news of the tragic death of Dr. Lorna Breen.[5] I initially heard through emails and texts from friends: “Did you know Lorna?” or “Did you hear about this doctor?” The news of Dr. Breen’s suicide hit New York City like a punch to the gut. Dr. Lorna Breen was head of the Emergency Department at the Allen Hospital of the New York-Presbyterian Hospital system. Her father is a surgeon, and her mother is a nurse. Most significantly, Dr. Breen was a Christian. I did not know Dr. Breen personally, though her face in the news reports was vaguely familiar. I only found out after her death that Dr. Breen was a fellow member at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, albeit at a different congregation in the city. While she was not a member of the national CMDA, she had been active with our NYC chapter 10 years ago. Even as we were mourning, many were silently asking, “How could this have happened?” “What could we have done to prevent such suicide?”

A recent follow-up article in the New York Times detailed many thoughts from Dr. Breen’s family and friends, including some of the private conversations they had with Dr. Breen during the height of the COVID-19 crisis.[6] I am grateful for the willingness of Dr. Breen’s family and friends to share their intimate conversations with their daughter, sister and friend, because what Dr. Breen experienced is not unique. Lorna’s suicide was NOT an exceptional event of extraordinary circumstances. Her suicide was a sentinel event of what lurked hidden, the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

She texted her Bible study friends and others: “People I work with are so confused by all of the mixed messages and constantly changing instructions. Would appreciate any prayers for safety, wisdom and trust.” “I’m totally lost. Trying to read up and get back to speed.” “Just baffled and overwhelmed.” “Hardest time of my life. Am trying to focus.” “I’m drowning right now. May be AWOL for a while.” During her last weeks, one of her friends remembered Lorna saying, “I couldn’t help anyone. I couldn’t do anything. I just wanted to help people, and I couldn’t do anything.” Lorna’s feelings of hopelessness, shame and guilt, coupled with the pernicious stigma of mental illness within the medical community, were crippling her. Her sister remembered Lorna kept saying, “I think everybody knows I’m struggling.”

In response to Dr. Breen’s suicide, Redeemer Counseling Service sponsored a psycho-education webinar coupled with small group processing time for healthcare professionals in May, acknowledging that we all have experienced trauma. In July, CMDA NYC, CMDA’s Psychiatry Section and Redeemer Counseling Service co-hosted a follow-up webinar meeting with Dr. Margaret Yoon (a Christian psychiatrist and CMDA member) for Christian healthcare professionals to explore what we might be experiencing now that the peak of the COVID-19 crisis has passed in NYC, to understand why we feel what we are feeling and to learn how we can seek help. So many of us in NYC have been holding our breath underwater while the COVID-19 crisis crashed over us. It is time for us to come up for air, to breathe in the life Jesus gives us and to be refreshed and be healed.

During the COVID-19 crisis, we all have learned to do EVERYTHING differently, and in doing so we experienced the power of God in our lives. We learned again what it means to be a neighbor as we shared precious N95 masks with our colleagues and friends. One member testified that as she shared N95 masks with her colleagues, one professed Jesus as her Savior. As we prayed for family members, relatives and friends who were sick, we saw God heal as fevers and symptoms broke within 24 hours of prayer. We also prayed fervently in around-the-clock vigils for family members and grieved when we lost them. We mourned, lamented and prayed again. We learned to be parents again, as our children’s schools were closed, and we had to be teachers, mentors and friends to our children who were struggling to understand why they could not see their friends and teachers. We learned how to be family again—how to cook dinner at home because all the restaurants were closed, how to have family time and how to enjoy each other’s presence again. Most importantly, we learned how to be church again without church buildings and church programs. With the benefit of online platforms, our living rooms became the center stage of the church. We learned to worship again without fancy sound systems and orchestral backup. We learned how to pray and expect our Heavenly Father to answer prayers because, after all, He is a good Father.

As cases and deaths from COVID-19 mounted in NYC, we prayed our Father would have mercy upon our city. As NYC’s peak of COVID-19 passed over us (and we experienced our first day without death from COVID-19 on July 12),[7] we are wondering if we will have our second wave of infection. When many in NYC were outside protesting after George Floyd’s senseless death (and NOT social distancing), why did we NOT have a second wave then? As the Coronavirus can be aerosolized and airborne (and we did not universally wear N95 masks nor have similar filters in our apartment buildings while we’ve been indoors for the most part of the last four months), why did COVID-19 cases and deaths abate in NYC and remain low today? How can we explain what we have experienced?

As of July 14, 2020, the official case count for New York City was 216,199, with 55,486 hospitalizations and 23,323 deaths (confirmed and probable).[8] Everyone would agree these statistics significantly underestimate the true burden of COVID-19, as many who were sick and recovered at home have not been tested. When we look at COVID-19 mortality statistics for NYC, there is a definite peak on April 7 (with 597 confirmed deaths from COVID-19). Do you remember when the Passover was this year? It started on April 8. Yes, our Heavenly Father answered our prayers and had mercy upon our city!

Yes, the crisis in NYC is far from over. Many churches are still closed. Many small businesses have not survived and will never return. Many who have the means to flee the city have left NYC, and some are not coming back. While the streets are relatively empty compared to pre-COVID-19 days, many more homeless are now out on the streets. Our young people are restless, protesting on the streets for justice, but no one (including the church) is talking about forgiving one another. Just recently, NYC experienced its deadliest weekend over the Fourth of July holiday, and gun violence (which plagues mostly minority neighborhoods in NYC, primarily due to gang violence) has tripled from just one year ago.[9] All these events are what is referred to in Hebrews: “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens” (Hebrews 12:26b, ESV).

Yet there is hope in NYC, and around our world, because hope has a name. And His name—Y’shua H’messiah (Jesus Christ)—has the power to rescue us, heal us and save us from our sins and brokenness. We have hope because His kingdom is a kingdom that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:28).

On July 2, more than 100 churches and Christian organizations in the greater New York City area (including CMDA NYC) recorded and released our own version of “The Blessing,” a powerful song written by Chris Brown, Cody Carnes, Kari Jobe and Steven Furtick. This song is the blessing Moses proclaimed over Aaron and his sons as commanded by our Heavenly Father in Numbers 6. “The New York Blessing,” released on YouTube, garnered over 300,000 views in less than two weeks.[10] More important than the YouTube views is the spiritual impact of singing and releasing the blessing of our Heavenly Father upon our own city. This song is what our families, our children, our friends, our neighbors and our city are aching to hear, even when they do not know what they are crying out for.

“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare…I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:7,10-13, ESV).

May it be so, Lord Jesus! Maranatha!

About the Author
Matthew Y. Suh, MD, MPH, is the current NYC Area Director for CMDA. He is a graduate of Harvard University and SUNY Downstate College of Medicine. He is a board certified surgeon, trained in general surgery and transplant/hepatobiliary pancreas surgery. Until recently, he was in private practice in Northern New Jersey. He is a MDiv candidate at the Alliance Theological Seminary and is blessed to be married to Margaret. He is proud of be father of Christopher and Trina. When not in NYC, Matthew may be found in Mongolia, leading Medical Education International’s teams to Mongolia.


[1] Dyal, Natasha Priya. "First case of COVID-19 in NYC, first death reported in Washington state." Infectious Disease Advisor. March 3, 2020. https://www.infectiousdiseaseadvisor.com/home/topics/respiratory/first-case-of-covid-19-in-nyc-first-death-reported-in-washington-state/ (accessed July 13, 2020).

[2] Ailworth, Erin and Berzon, Alexandra. "How coronavirus invaded one New York community: 'We weren't expecting it to be Ground Zero'." The Wall Street Journal. March 30, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-coronavirus-invaded-new-rochelle-we-werent-expecting-it-to-be-ground-zero-11585583228 (accessed July 13, 2020).

[3] Gonzalez-Reiche, AS, et al. "Introductions and early spread of SARS-CoV-2 in the New York City area." Science. May 29, 2020. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/05/28/science.abc1917 (accessed July 13, 2020).

[4] Online registration for the OASIS meetings is at https://bit.ly/register4oasis

[5] Watkins, A., Rothfeld, M., Rashbaum, WK., and Rosenthal, BM. "Top E.R. doctor who treated virus patients dies by suicide." New York Times. April 27, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/27/nyregion/new-york-city-doctor-suicide-coronavirus.html?smid=tw-share (accessed July 14, 2020).

[6] Knoll, C., Watkins, A., and Rothfeld M. "'I couldn't do anything': the virus and an E.R. doctor's suicide." New York Times. July 11, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/11/nyregion/lorna-breen-suicide-coronavirus.html (accessed July 14, 2020).

[7] Yang, Yueqi. "New York City reaches milestone with no reported virus deaths." Bloomberg News. July 12, 2020. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-12/new-york-city-reaches-milestone-with-no-reported-virus-deaths (accessed July 14, 2020).

[8] New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "COVID-19: Data." NYC.gov. July 14, 2020. https://www1.nyc.gov/site/doh/covid/covid-19-data.page (accessed July 14, 2020).

[9] Price, Brian. "9 dead, at least 42 shot in roughly 15 hours as NYC violence rages over weekend." NBC New York. July 5, 2020. https://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/bullet-strikes-nypd-patrol-vehicle-misses-officers-sitting-inside/2500243/ (accessed July 14, 2020).

[10] The New York Blessing can be viewed at https://bit.ly/nyblessing

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