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Guest Column: Shirley and Wilma - Let's Honor Their Memory

June 1, 2021
Gary Click News

Last week, I introduced House Bill 324, also known as Shirley and Wilma’s Law. The intent of the bill is to ensure that patients have access to both family and clergy even during a pandemic such as COVID-19.

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the value of our healthcare professionals shined more brightly than in any era in our recent memory. They went over and above the call of duty to care for our communities in the midst of COVID-19. This is something that we should be eternally grateful for. 

However, in the midst of this trial by fire, families experienced some severe and challenging unintended consequences as a result of the genuine concern of our healthcare administrators. Patients faced isolation and loneliness in our hospitals; whether they went in for a simple surgery or lay lonely in a quiet hospital bed drawing their last breath. 

Devout people of faith were denied a parting prayer from their minister as they slipped out into eternity without a friend in reach. Family members said their last goodbyes at the entrance to the emergency room though it would take days, weeks or even months before they finally passed. You only die once and we all imagine holding a loved one’s hand and hearing the gentle whispers of their voice during that sacred moment when we teeter between heaven and earth. As a pastor myself, I’ve often held that dying hand and spoken words of comfort to souls that would never savor the sweet moments of this life again. The inability to provide that critical comfort and compassion at the end of life leaves an emptiness in the heart of a spiritual caregiver, not for himself or herself, but for the deceased who died alone. There are no retakes. 

Shirley was one of the people who was denied pastoral care as she lay dying. After cutting through the red tape, I was finally getting access to go pray with her. But at the very same moment I was being told “yes,” my phone vibrated with a text message that read: “Mom just died.”

A month later, her best friend Wilma was in the hospital with COVID-19. Terri was denied access to go in and be with her mother. The staff told her that she could not see her until her mother was at the point of death. They would call when she was imminent. That moment came and Terri rushed to the hospital. By the time she hurried into her mother’s room, Wilma had been dead for seven minutes. 

Shirley and Wilma represent so many more people who died without access to those they loved, not to mention many who faced uncertain surgeries and medical procedures while their next of kin sat in ice-covered parking lots waiting for a call from within to update them on their loved ones. Their cars became their cold prayer benches while they clung to hope on frigid wintery days.

As difficult as these times were for many families, we do not impugn the integrity or intent of our healthcare professionals. They went over and above the call of duty in so many ways. However, they were not the source of the inconsistent and overreaching rules in place. In fact, they too were often victimized. It was not unheard of for healthcare professionals who were forced to make certain that family members were in the hospital where they practiced as the only means to ensure that they had access. 

The inconsistencies were abundant. Different healthcare systems had different rules. Some places allowed for no visitors while others would allow one unique visitor per day. One minute a family member could be told “yes,” only to be followed up with a “no” or just the reverse. 

While people experiencing a healthcare crisis in their families were forced to turn parking lots into waiting rooms and family members sat by the phone in anticipation of the call they never wanted to receive, strangers mingled in big box stores with nothing but an ill-worn mask to stave off the virus. While we’re permitted to bump into our friends and neighbors and interrupt our shopping with laughs and trivial conversations, just a block or two away others were tearfully wishing for just one more moment to say, “I love you.” This disparity is difficult to comprehend and impossible to justify. 

Hospitals are experts at sanitization and completely capable of providing appropriate PPE. It’s hard to argue that Walmart is safer than your local hospital. Yet in the aftermath of COVID-19, so many families are left looking at that empty seat at the table and wishing they had one more opportunity to say good-bye. 

House Bill 324, the Shirley and Wilma’s Law, provides appropriate guidance to prevent families from facing these same struggles in the future while continuing to allow appropriate safeguards against the spread of a contagious disease. This bill is what Shirley, Wilma and their families deserved – let’s honor their memory.