The COVID-19 pandemic is demanding more empathy and creativity from front line nurses than ever, as they step up to treat not just the medical, but the spiritual needs of patients and their families.

At UPMC Hamot, nurse Lindsey Dart became the hands and voice of Father Chris Singer, Vice Chancellor of the Diocese of Erie when he was called on to anoint 72-year-old Sam McKinney of Kane in his final hours.  The priest was unable to enter the patient’s room, because of protective protocols to prevent the spread of the virus.

Sam McKinney and his wife Nancy both contracted the virus, exposed by someone at one of their workplaces. Nancy recovered at UPMC Kane.  But with a history of diabetes and high blood pressure Sam was unable to win his fight.  After 21 days on a ventilator at UPMC Hamot, he passed away.

Stepson Adam Bundy, who lives on Long Island, can’t say enough about how Lindsey and other nurses in UPMC Hamot’s specially created ICU became like family using technology to keep them connected to Sam and being there when they couldn’t.

"Lindsey offered that she would be there and hold Sam's hand as he took his last breath, and you know she made well on that promise and she was there for the last rites she was there for his final breath, where the family couldn't be, she was there for us,” Bundy said.

UPMC Hamot Chief nursing officer Jim Donnelly echoes that sentiment.  He says the nurses who have stepped forward to meet the challenges really understand better than ever before that they work in a sacred space, helping patients and families through the worst days of their lives.

Still he said, no nurse expected to anoint a patient, relaying the words of anointing the sick, across glass and over cell phones as Lindsey and her fellow nurse Angie Calvert did.  "Angie the clinician was up there alongside Father Chris with her phone, Lindsey was in the room with a phone following his instructions, and…this is emblematic of the kinds of nursing care that really, I am so proud of, and humbled to be a part of,” Donnelly said.

Lindsey said she was only able to offer that support because of the strong nursing team around her, especially her unit manager, nurse Mike Olszewski.

Donnelly said Olszewski set the standard for commitment, coming seven days a week for the last seven weeks, and hopping in his car to come to the hospital each time a COVID-19 patient came into the unit, to make sure his staff was safe and the patient's every need was met.  “So many nurses stepped up volunteered to be a part of it with courage and conviction and really made a difference,” Donnelly said.  “They realized they needed new solutions to delivering care, supporting patients and meeting all of our patient’s needs including their spiritual needs and this is evidence of that.”

Adam Bundy said his mother is better after her battle with the virus, but is still regaining her strength. He said the saddest part is that she was unable to see her husband at the end, or have a funeral.  They plan to gather for a memorial service when it’s safe to do so. He wants to meet nurse Lindsey in person and give her a hug when it's safe to do so.

Bundy hopes his family's story of loss helps people to understand the seriousness of this virus. “There’s really no closure with this and I don’t want people to think this is in the clear--not wear masks or social distance, and think we’re good.”  He cautions that they could face the same struggle and loss that his family has. “They’re going to experience the same thing that we have, and I would not wish this upon anybody,” Bundy said adding, “I mean it’s absolutely a vicious virus that doesn’t care and you know people just need to realize… people are dying from it.”