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