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At a New York hospital, a friar watches over those dying: 'The miracle is to let go'

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NEW YORK - The morning after he turned 52 last month, Brother Robert Bathe emerged from the Millennium Hotel on West 44th Street. He ambled half a block into Times Square and reflected on the emptiness. A street cleaner's whoosh broke the silence.

Dressed in a brown robe, the traditional garb of his Carmelite order, Bathe began his daily walk down Broadway. At 28th Street, he hooked left and continued to Bellevue Hospital, where he is a Roman Catholic chaplain and bereavement coordinator.

"Welcome to ground zero," he said before a nurse trained a thermometer gun on his forehead and scanned for a reading.

It read 98.6. The nurse nodded.

"Normally," he said, "the family is there with me bedside at death, and when we say the Our Father it is very emotional. Now I stare at a person that is taking their last breaths. I'm with a doctor and a couple of nurses. We're saying goodbye."

Bathe is the friar on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic. A native Tennessean who was a soil scientist before entering religious life at age 27, his Southern accent is the first voice many patients' family members hear from the city's oldest hospital when he calls to inquire about special needs.

Each morning, he reviews death logs. He then walks through the emergency department and intensive care unit, where he stands behind glass and cues up music on the smartphone he keeps in his pocket. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" is a favorite selection. On Funky Fridays, as he calls them, Bathe mixes Benedictine chants with James Brown. If patients are awake, he flexes his biceps or pumps a fist - encouragement to stay strong. He takes precautions when praying over the intubated, slipping on an N95 mask and face shield. In all, he ministers to more than 25 patients daily.

"Music gives a little more sense of sacredness so I don't get distracted by nurses and doctors screaming," he said. "I am focused on that patient, looking at that face. I know who that person is, imagine what it is like for them to be alive."

His pager pulses with death updates. It is programmed to receive alerts for cardiac emergencies, traumas and airway issues. Whenever a coronavirus patient on a ventilator needs attention, it comes across his screen twice. When a nurse who worked in the neonatal ICU died of COVID-19 recently, Mary Ann Tsourounakis, Bellevue's senior associate director of maternal child health, called pastoral care for help. A group of nurses grieved. First to arrive was Bathe, who led them in prayer in a small hallway.

"One of the most healing and loving I've heard," Tsourounakis said. "People think it has to be a big production. Sometimes those moments are the moments."

The virus continues to paralyze the city and stretch the limits of its hospital system. Confirmed cases have surpassed 185,000 and more than 20,316 deaths had been recorded, according to the New York City Health Department.

Bathe's path to New York began in Knoxville, Tennessee. He grew up around his grandfather's cattle farm, went on frequent hikes as an Eagle Scout and eyed a career as a forest ranger while a teenager. His mother, Linda, worked at the University of Tennessee, and she consulted with faculty members about her son's future in forestry. Prospects were slim, and alternate paths - archaeology or agriculture - were suggested.

He didn't see himself traveling to Egypt to unearth tombs, so he dug into agricultural studies and toiled with botany and geology as well. Following graduation, he worked for the Buncombe County environmental health agency in North Carolina. Hired to protect groundwater, his release was to drop a line in honey holes for catfish, pitch a tent and listen to bluegrass songs after dark.

One day, Bathe was sent to meet a man named Robert Warren to evaluate his soil so he could build a house. When Bathe arrived, he saw Warren slumped over in his truck. As Bathe approached, he said, Warren grabbed his hand and asked, "Would you pray with me?"

They recited the Lord's Prayer, he said. Moments later, he was dead, Bathe recalled. Bathe accompanied him to the hospital and attended the memorial service and funeral.

He believes the experience, which he wrote about for the Vision Vocation Network in 2003, led him to his true calling.

Bathe joined the Carmelites soon after, and in 1997 was assigned to Our Lady of the Scapular and St. Stephen's Church, two blocks from Bellevue. Lessons followed.

One day, he said, a woman fell from her window in a neighboring building and through the church roof. Bathe was sent up to investigate.

"First dead body I ever smelled," he says. "Life is tender."

Transfers are part of the friar life. He taught in Boca Raton, Florida, and served as the vocation director from Maine to Miami before returning to Manhattan two and a half years ago.

In ordinary times, Bathe receives a monthly allowance of $250, lives in the St. Eliseus Priory in Harrison, New Jersey, and rides the PATH train. He fell ill in January, experienced the chills, registered a temperature of 101 and lost weight. He believed it was pneumonia then and self-isolated, using a back stairwell to his room. His brothers left meals outside his door, and he returned to Bellevue after convalescing. He has yet to be tested for COVID-19.

Since March 30, the hospital has facilitated his participation in a program that provides free or discounted rooms for front-line workers, first at a Comfort Inn on the west side of Manhattan and now at the Millennium, to limit his commute. Along the route to work, his bald head, eager gait and hearty laugh are known to mendicants and administrators alike.

He carries on the tradition of the Carmelites, who have ministered at Bellevue since the 1800s, through periodic epidemics, saying Masses from the psychiatric ward to the prison unit. Colleagues include a new rabbi and a 20-year-old imam.

When a Catholic dies, he performs the commendation of the dead, a seven-minute service. His responsibilities range from distributing Communion to finding prayer books for patients across faiths to leading memorial services for staff. He is "staunchly against" virtual bereavement, which has become common amid the pandemic, insisting on providing a physical presence.

"People are looking for a miracle when the miracle is to let go," he said. "Call me too practical, but I don't pray they leap out of the grave like Lazarus. I think we're meant for better. We're meant for God."

Hospital staffers are processing what has happened since the pandemic first gripped New York, and they're bracing for a potential second wave. Since Lorna Breen, medical director for the emergency department at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, died by suicide last month, Bellevue has increased its support services for employees. Questions about closure come from all mourners.

"Families ask, 'Are we going to be able to have our loved one go to Mexico?' " Bathe said. "How are we going to do the next step, to bury our loved ones?"

On a recent Sunday, Bathe stepped outside for a breather in what some people call Bedpan Alley, the east side neighborhood that includes hospitals and a shelter on First Avenue. He checked on a homeless woman who sits in a chair facing Bellevue each day, rubbing his thumb against hers as she slept. A shoeless man was prone on the sidewalk. Bathe inquired about a can collector's economic concerns. Business was slow.

"Are you a priest?" a woman on a bench asked Bathe.

"No, ma'am," Bathe said. "I'm a friar."

She introduced herself as Shonda. She was anxious about a meeting with her manager.

"You want to say a prayer for me?" she said.

"Put the phone down," he said.

Bathe closed his eyes and prayed.

"Breathe," he said.

"I'm going to breathe," she said.

As he walked back to the hospital, his pager went off. "Cardiac Arrest," it read, "10 West 36."

"Somebody's dying," he said.

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