In 45 years as a respiratory therapist I’ve never seen anything like this. Not AIDS. Not SARS. Nothing.”
After “hello,” these were Howard Derrick’s first words to me on a May 1st video call from his office at St. Dominic Hospital, Jackson, Miss. “This” was coronavirus.
Howard, a Springfield Dominican associate, and I have served many years together on the congregation’s antiracism team. When asked
whether he thought states should allow businesses to open soon, he responded with that head-tilt I’ve learned means “listen up.”
“I’m just not comfortable with that,” he said. Howard understands the consequences of his profession—he calls it his vocation. “This is what we trained and signed up for,” he said about himself and his frontline colleagues at St. Dominic. “We are willing to risk our lives to take care of people.”
Soon, our call was interrupted by a code called over the PA. Howard grabbed his pager and darted offcamera. “Gotta go!” he shouted,
leaving me staring at his empty office. When he called back, he said he had intubated a distressed patient. I asked about the source of his courage.
“My mother reared us up on the 23rd Psalm. That will take you through life,” he said. “That’s the Godhonest truth.” Howard said he practices a detailed decontamination process at the end of every shift: Lysol-spraying his clothing before entering the house, then meticulously showering before seeing his wife Maryam or touching anything at home.
“It’s depressing to come here every day knowing I might go home with something I didn’t come to work with,” he said. Still, those challenges do not override his desire to follow “the same pathway Jesus took” in his willingness to give his life for others. He says it’s satisfying to see the results of his work. “It’s thrilling to take someone from an inability to breathe or talk to clear airways and
sufficient breath. You give of yourself and you receive back the gift of what you’ve given from others.”
Howard is aware of the limits to his knowledge and skill, and clear that the “bridge” to life he builds for his patients is temporary. “God is going to have his way,” he said. Whether he gains his patients a few additional hours, or days, months, or years, he knows what he gives them is the gift of time—and an opportunity for healing and reconciliation. That, he says, is the greatest reward.