‘It Only Gets Brighter From Here’

Paul Lehmann, in mask and gloves, stands in hospital.

After enduring the darkest days of the pandemic at the bedsides of COVID patients in their final moments, UC Chaplain Paul Lehmann says the vaccine has provided the first glimmers of light.

It was fitting, says Paul Lehmann, that he received his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on the day of the winter solstice. 

“From December 21 on, the days start to get longer, and the darkest days are behind us,” he says. “It will only get brighter from here.”

The metaphor offers some hope in what’s been a dark and devastating period for so many—including Lehmann himself, who has witnessed the heartbreak firsthand as director of spiritual care for the Mohawk Valley Health System in Utica.

A beloved campus fixture as Utica College’s director of student activities from 2000 to 2012 and now the College’s chaplain, Lehmann was among the first in the Utica area to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in December. In his current role with MVHS since 2012, Lehmann has helped patients and their families cope with illness and death through faith. But in the midst of the pandemic, Lehmann’s work has exponentially increased and intensified. 

In late March, the volunteers and part-time workers in Lehmann’s office were dismissed for safety reasons, and many priests, pastors, and other religious leaders were discouraged from visiting hospitals. As a result, Lehmann found himself a “one-man spiritual care department,” he says.

“The joke going around was, ‘Need a priest? Call Deacon Paul. Need an imam? Call Deacon Paul,” he laughs.

Since the spring, Lehmann has divided his time between MVHS’s three hospitals in Utica, regularly visiting more than a dozen patients each day. Middle-of-the-night calls are common. His family’s small Thanksgiving celebration in November was put on hold when he was called to administer the Catholic last rites to a COVID patient that evening. 

Beyond the emotional toll, the safety measures required to enter patients’ rooms are time-consuming and physically exhausting. Responding to a call means “gowning up” in full Personal Protective Equipment, the same way nurses and doctors do, and then carefully discarding every item of PPE on the way out. He also follows a strict disinfecting routine before entering his own home.

Still, he says, he can’t escape the fear of contracting the virus himself or, worse, transmitting it to his family.

“It’s a little scary each time. You put on all the gear, follow the protocols, and just hope you did it right,” he says. 

Unlike anything he’s experienced at the hospital before, Lehmann says the pandemic has heightened the pressure on the role he plays in families’ hardest moments. Because loved ones are not permitted to enter COVID rooms, Lehmann is often the only person, besides healthcare workers, allowed to be with dying patients in their final hours.

“It’s humbling. A family is entrusting you to comfort their loved one during this sacred moment,” he says. “In every family, there’s that sense of deep longing and love they want to express but can’t, so I have to do it for them.”

Understandably, he admits the work of the past nine months has been grueling. 

“I’m tired in every possible way. Physically, mentally, emotionally. I’m tired of being tired,” he says. 

But in December, like the rest of the world, Lehmann saw his first glimmer of hope in the approval of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. After receiving his first dose last week, Lehmann says he’s experienced no side effects, save for some minor soreness around the injection area. He’s eager to get his second dose early in the New Year. 

In the meantime, Lehmann is prepared to spend much of his holiday the same way he’s spent most of 2020—at patients’ bedsides, comforting them and delivering messages from loved ones just outside the hospital doors. 

“Across all races, religions, backgrounds, and ages, the messages are always the same,” says Lehmann. “It’s always ‘I love you.’” 

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