Lessons Learned in the COVID-19 Field Hospital
When 2020 started, I had a plan. A plan to follow God’s leading to serve on a mission trip in Southeast Cambodia. Like everyone else, those plans were completely changed when the pandemic hit. But God.
by Christine M. Rutledge, RN
When 2020 started, I had a plan. A plan to follow God’s leading to serve on a mission trip in Southeast Cambodia. Like everyone else, those plans were completely changed when the pandemic hit.
God had a different plan for me. A plan for me to serve His people as a registered nurse in a field hospital in Central Park in New York City during the COVID-19 outbreak.
It’s been more than a year since I was tasked to serve on the frontlines of this strange war, and I’ve taken time to reflect on what I learned during that experience. There was so much loss of life, so much loss of love from the ones who died, so much loss of income, loss of hope, loss of dreams and on and on. More loss than we can begin to comprehend. And because of that loss, I am humbled by what I have learned, what I have gained and what I can now celebrate.
This article is a compilation of the lessons I learned on the mission field of New York City. I gained a sense of purpose and the importance of serving others. I renewed my love of bedside nursing. I gained a recognition that it’s ok to stay put and to love being home. I learned to simply pass the hours of the day praying and worshipping my Lord. It is a story of sadness, glory and a deep burden, both physically and emotionally. But more importantly, it is a story of His provision and His providence as He led me to serve on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis.
“Wait for the Lord; be strong and courageous. Wait for the Lord.”
—Psalm 27:14, HCSB
My story is one of plans that changed and morphed and became. They became His plans and His alone. I had to learn to listen to the Lord’s direction, pay close attention to His leading, move out of the way and let Him lead.
It started with my retirement from a managerial position in November 2017. I am a registered nurse with a master’s degree in nursing administration. The majority of my nursing career, I led a busy inpatient unit and a small clinic. I developed leadership and administrative skills that kept me in charge of many things. I reflect, though, that this career left me with was an exaggerated sense of being in charge, having my own agenda and going about things “my way.” When I retired to pursue medical missions, I naturally thought I would begin by intricately planning everything out. I may have thought I was praying and asking for His direction, but in all seriousness, I would say quick prayers like, “Lord, direct my path.” Then I would take over and plan things out myself.
I started my mission service in Bolivia on a riverboat that traveled down the Amazon River Basin in 2018. I felt fulfilled, used by Him and determined to serve again. I was blessed to return to the Amazon in 2019, followed by a trip to Kenya with CMDA’s Global Health Outreach (GHO) in August 2019. Having three trips under my belt, I was eager to serve again. I applied and was accepted by a GHO team heading to Southeast Asia. I prayed, planned and packed. I read about Buddhism, raised support and got my visa. I even had a seat on the plane! Those plans were dashed by the swiftly spreading Coronavirus. The fear of bringing this strange virus to rural Southeast Asia was too great, so the trip was cancelled. I wept many tears and then tried to wait on the Lord. Psalm 27 speaks about David’s “wait.” Verse 14 says, “Wait for the Lord; be strong and courageous. Wait for the Lord” (HCSB).
I “waited” a short time, then I quickly joined a team headed to Eastern Europe. This time I prayed, planned and changed my wardrobe from summer to fall/winter. Despite my efforts, this plan was short-lived when it fell through as well. The virus was waging war against our world. Again, I wept and asked, “Lord, where do you want me to go?”
I spent the next two weeks wondering and waiting while the world changed dramatically. I started fervently praying about where the Lord wanted me to serve. He was preparing me, and I was finally allowing Him to prepare me. I remember it vividly. I was wiping the counter in my kitchen, something that is so mundane and so rout. Nevertheless, I am convinced that some of the best places and best ways to pray is when I don't have to concentrate on anything but Him. My phone rang. I answered and spoke with a representative from the Disaster Assistance Relief Team (DART) from Samaritan’s Purse. The question was, “Are you available to deploy to Italy and serve in the field hospital?” I felt that this was a direct and instant answer to prayer. “Yes, I am ready to serve!” I heard again, “Wait,” and we will call you. There was that word again, “WAIT.”
On Sunday, March 29, 2020, the plans for a deployment to Italy suddenly became, “Can you deploy to New York City?” Once again, I confused my plans with the Lord’s plans. My husband clearly said, "It’s New York where you are to serve, Chris." I remember thinking, “I thought I was going to Italy?” Then a day and a half later, I was on a plane headed for the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis in our country. People have asked me, “How did God open this door to serve?” He opened it by shutting countless other doors and making me aware of His sovereign plan for His people and for my life. He opened it by making me wait.
“Pray without ceasing.”
—1 Thessalonians 5:17, ESV
Arriving in New York on March 31, my first impression was how quiet this loud city had become. I had been there on three previous occasions and, to be honest, I was never enamored with the hustle and bustle and the amount of people everywhere. In an eerie way, the city was really quiet except for the sirens. The sirens were relentless and continuous. I’ve learned over the course of my prayer life that when you hear a siren, to pray for the person, their family, the EMTs, the doctors, the nurses, etc. These sirens made me sure of 1 Thessalonians 5:17 when it says, “Pray without ceasing.” The sirens were without ceasing.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
—Proverbs 3:5-6, NIV
As I mentioned earlier, I am a registered nurse with management and leadership experience. My career has spanned 38 years, and 30 of those years have been in management. On this deployment, I was tasked with being a ward nurse in the field hospital. I prayed that the Lord would not have me work the night shift, that we would not work 12-hour shifts and that my “days off” between shifts would be restful. He answered that prayer by having me work 12-hour night shifts with NO days off for 21 days. It was only through His supernatural power that this 59-year-old former nurse manager was able to do this. And it was only by His sovereign power and in His strength that I was able to physically serve Him in this way.
“God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’”
—Exodus 3:14, NIV
While serving in New York City, I have never felt His presence more palpable in ALL my life. It was a supernatural presence. When I was afraid of making a mistake because I was so exhausted, He whispered, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). When my patients were so short of breath and so anxious about the symptoms of worsening COVID-19, He brought to my mind His character—He is our provider, He is our sustainer, He is our help in time of trouble, He is the author of life, He is the creator of the universe and nothing can escape His grasp. And on and on.
“Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
—Philippians 4:6, CSB
I have always prayed for my patients, for my staff and for the operations of the unit I managed for so many years. These were silent prayers to an Almighty God, and those prayers were answered in His way over the years. In the hospital tent, these prayers became audible and purposeful and so simple, like praying for the very breath we need to live. The patients would cough and gasp for air and become so anxious. I would just drop to my knees and start praying over them. I learned that God hears our prayers, and what a privilege it is to go to Him in complete and utter dependence.
“We love because he first loved us.”
—1 John 4:19, CSB
The tent I worked in was a 14-bed ward with both male and female patients. They were all suffering the effects of COVID-19 in differing degrees of the disease. These patients were New York City. They were such a diverse group of ethnic groups. They were what America was founded on—people of all different races, religions, young, old, poor, educated, uneducated. It was a joy to learn about their families and their lives, and it was a joy to share their struggles. It is true that as healthcare professionals, we became their families. It reminded me that God created people to live in community and to love one another. When their families were absent, we loved. When they had no one by their sides, we loved. When they took their last breaths, we loved.
“As for me, I vow that I will not sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you. I will teach you the good and right way.”
—1 Samuel 12:23, CSB
He taught me in the wee hours of the morning to rely on Him, on His strength, on His provision, on His working all things for His purpose. I developed a rhythm of work, of rest and of a peace that passes all understanding. I developed a reliance on Him and on His people. He works through His people. He worked through me to provide care for His people. He worked through the people of His flock to encourage me and lift me up, to pray for me and to bring me things I needed. I wasn’t hesitant to ask for things I needed. I never felt alone or on my own while I was in New York. I always felt the prayers, love and support of the people I referred to as my “rope holders.” They held the rope as I climbed down into the pit.
“Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him and bless his name.”
—Psalm 100:4, CSB
I also had to relinquish my pride and do some unglamorous things. I needed to surrender all and help people attend to their bodily needs. That meant making several trips to the porta-potty outside the tent. This is when the song “I Surrender All” would enter my mind. I felt so weary I could not even muster a thought of Scripture, but the Lord led me to sing His praises even in the mundane and personal parts of caring for His people.
“Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us—to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
—Ephesians 3:20-21, CSB
He was with me in my weariness, in my physical and emotional exhaustion. He was with me and provided His glorious presence at all times. He never left me; I was never forsaken. He worked all things for His good through Christ Jesus.
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.”
—Psalm 23:1-3a, ESV
As a person who served on the frontlines, I received a lot of attention when I arrived back home. If you are reading this and responding as some did and thinking I was some sort of hero or special person for going, I would respond as I did then—I am a nurse who loves Jesus. He called me to this work. I can’t explain it other than to say it was one of the best nursing assignments I have ever had. I wasn't afraid of the virus. I felt protected and provided for, and I am never more protected than when I am in God's will. New York City was undeniably an assignment from the Lord. Going forward, I pray I get out of His way and let Him lead, as He leads me to serve Him well. Again, and again, and again.
About the Author
Christine M. Rutledge, RN, has been a registered nurse for 39 years. She has worked in a variety of roles, primarily in nursing administration. She retired in 2017 with an expressed desire to serve doing Christian medical missionary work. Her past mission experiences have been on the Amazon River Basin in Bolivia, with GHO serving in Kenya with her son and most recently in New York City and Lenoir, North Carolina in Samaritan’s Purse’s Emergency Field Hospital caring for COVID-19 patients. Chris leads Bible studies, volunteers at a local free clinic and is currently serving giving the COVID-19 vaccinations in nearby communities. She lives in Lisbon, Iowa with the love of her life, her husband Dale. She has three grown children and six grandchildren, and she spends time with the ultimate love of her life, Jesus.