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Having “The Lofty Spirit of Hope!”

July 14, 2021

By Emily Dunn

Golden Ears District, Maple Ridge, British Columbia

Emily with her husband Brandon and son Carson

I was born into Nichiren Buddhism, as both my parents are practitioners. Chanting has helped me all my life, and especially in the months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I am a psychiatric nurse in the emergency room of a busy hospital in New Westminster, British Columbia. I married Brandon seven years ago and we have a two-year-old son, Carson. Before Carson was born, I chanted for a child who would inspire me in my Buddhist practice for world peace, and that is what he has done. Carson makes me work harder to overcome difficulties. My husband also practises Nichiren Buddhism, and so he understands where I am coming from.

A unique challenge that we are going through as a family, and are still facing collectively worldwide, is the impactful reality created by COVID-19. By mid-March 2020, a state of emergency was declared in Canada. We were all strongly encouraged to stay home, and to maintain social distancing. For many, this meant working from home while keeping the kids at home too. However, as an essential frontline worker, I never had that option. I continued working at the hospital.

I knew the situation was serious when my manager was repeatedly called away for multiple COVID-19 planning meetings every day. Our infection control policies were changing so rapidly at work that it was hard to keep up. I remember one shift early on when policies were changing within hours. In one day, we went from allowing two visitors on the unit to one visitor to no visitors at all. We started wearing masks and goggles with all our patients, and sometimes we had to wear isolation gowns.

As the pandemic wears on, these protocols continue, and in addition, we must wear a mask in the nursing station for our entire 12-hour shift. Routines quickly change. My co-workers and I now sanitize our computer keyboards, phones, and all surfaces that are touched. I put my hair in a bun at work and sometimes wear a head cap over all of it. I get a headache due to the lack of oxygen from wearing the mask for so many hours during a shift. I change out of my scrubs into clean clothes when leaving work. When I get home, I leave my shoes outside the house. I shower before I greet my husband or hold my child.

Assessing mental health patients at a distance while wearing a mask and goggles is challenging, especially if the patient is also wearing a mask. It’s hard to read their overall emotional affect. Since they are not able to see me smile, I have developed new ways to connect.

Emily at work

Some days I find myself with little time to chant at home. I do my best, sometimes chanting in my car as I drive 45 minutes to work. I find that reading my mentor Daisaku Ikeda’s daily guidance inspires me for my day’s activities. Although short, these guidances always seem to fit whatever is happening that day.

In the beginning, my husband was supportive of me going to work, but during times of stress he voiced his concern about me being at the hospital during the pandemic. He worried that it put the three of us at a higher risk of getting sick. I also worried about this.

Eventually, news was emerging that not only the elderly, but also young people were dying. Many of them were health care professionals. There were times when I dreaded going to work. I chanted sincerely for my family’s health and protection from getting COVID-19. I would listen to CBC news, and then I would feel angry and sad at hearing about yet another victim who had lost the battle with COVID-19. My heart went out to all the families and health care workers in the hard-hit areas such as New York and Italy.

It was painfully hard to explain to my two-year-old son why he couldn’t visit Nana, his grandmother, or go into her house. We stayed in our car and briefly visited my parents at a distance with the windows down. It broke my heart when he would say, “Nana, come in,” or “Let’s go in the house, Mama.” He would cry when he was told we could not.

My husband kept asking, “When will this end and when can we go back to the way things used to be?” Deep down, I knew that life would always be a bit different. Life would never entirely go back to the way it used to be, and for good reasons.

I was grateful for things such as the community pulling together by sewing masks, banging on pots and pans at seven every night to thank us for our work, and having a parade of police, fire, and ambulance trucks cheering us on at the end of every shift. The first time I saw the parade, I broke down in tears. It made our sacrifices worthwhile to know that we were helping people during a difficult time.

I am grateful for Sensei's encouragement in the poem “Protectors of Life—The Lofty Spirit of Hope!” that he wrote to commemorate nurses’ week. One part reads: 

Looking at the face of each patient

with an attentive expert eye,

and warmly watching over each one of them, 

you work day and night

to realize your dream of

helping everyone fulfill their wish

of living long, healthy lives—

what paragons of love and compassion you are!

(New Century, August 2020, p. 7)

I am also grateful for my son’s improved health. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, he got sick all the time. As COVID-19 continued, however, Carson’s health was better. Fewer children were attending his day care, and new sanitation protocols helped prevent him from getting sick. I kept him home often, and so I have enjoyed connecting with him more. We walk together and explore nature. There are some good things that have come out of this year, including the gift of time. 

For the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, my work in mental health was quieter than before. Many people were afraid to come to the hospital or were told to stay away. As a result, we had a lot more down time to do personal projects. One of these was to search for a new home to purchase. At the beginning of May 2020, we found our dream house. We managed to buy and sell during a pandemic, and all within one month’s time. However, just as we started to settle into our new home, I contracted COVID-19 from work. Dread came over me when I received the news that I had tested positive. I thought I had done everything right. I always wore all of my PPE, and I had sanitized as often as I could. 

We weren’t sure how I could isolate myself from my husband and child. I couldn’t imagine not seeing my baby for two weeks. However, Carson immediately showed symptoms, and so we decided to self-isolate as a family. A week later, by Christmas, my husband contracted COVID-19 as well. Although it was a stressful time, I’m so grateful that our symptoms were mild and that we don’t have any residual effects. Staying positive, chanting to overcome the virus, and receiving support from loved ones helped us get through it. I now have a deeper awareness and empathy for those who have experienced the effects of COVID-19. I’m also extremely grateful for recently receiving my COVID-19 vaccine.

My work as a psychiatric nurse is busier now because people are beginning to show the mental and emotional effects of the stress of this ongoing pandemic.

I know there are still many challenges ahead. I am determined to continue chanting and studying Buddhism to the best of my ability. I am confident that we will overcome the struggles brought on by this pandemic. The SGI theme for 2021 is “Year of Hope and Victory.” I believe that with hope, victory will come.

 Published in May 2021 New Century