Willie Cobb didn’t know the coronavirus was coming, but he was prepared for it. The 57-year-old hospital chaplain in Chicago has been helping people grapple with death for a long time.
As a black chaplain in a city that has long had health inequalities that break down along racial lines, Cobb was not surprised that COVID-19 hit the city’s black population hard. But even he was shocked to see how many black people were filling the ICU beds and requiring ventilators in the two hospitals where he works. The citywide data is similarly stark — black people account for about 70% of the coronavirus deaths in Chicago but make up only 30% of the population.
Still, Cobb, a married father of three and Catholic, ministers to everyone — across different religions and races. And as COVID-19 has borne down on his city, he has gotten to work.
Four days out of the week, Cobb makes the 10-minute drive from his home to Community First Medical Center on the north side of Chicago in a mostly white and Latino neighborhood. He likes to arrive by 6 a.m.
In the time of COVID-19, his early mornings have shifted from checking in to see what’s happened with the patients overnight to seeing which patients have died.
“This is the new normal,” he says.
Cobb picks up the phone and calls the families of the dead, to find out what he can do to help — these are the people who will need his support most immediately.
Hospital chaplains typically provide spiritual support, but Cobb says that’s just one part of what he does. The way he describes it, his job is to get people through the worst moments of their lives — the moments that are so bleak tomorrow doesn’t seem worth living for. Cobb is always asking people what they need. Getting resources to people — whether it’s childcare or help with funeral arrangements — is one way to assuage pain.
At 8:30 each morning, he leads a morning prayer over the loudspeaker of the hospital for all of the staff and patients. The prayers come from whatever is in his heart, he says, but most recently he’s been praying for the health care workers who are on the front lines. In the past week, he’s offered prayers for both Passover and Easter. Round-faced and with a wide smile, Cobb speaks melodically and with patience; the long pauses between his thoughts offer a tinge of dramatic flair.
After the prayer, he checks in with individual staff members, to see how they’re doing. He’s never seen them all so pushed to their limits. Some of them are scared to death, he says. He watched one woman, on the janitorial staff, nearly faint in distress after she was asked to clean the room of a COVID-19 patient. She was sent to the emergency room and then home after that.
These days, there’s only so much time to listen and ask after the health care workers’ needs before all of the nurses, cleaners, and respiratory therapists have to get back to their jobs.
“Everything is an emergency. Everything is intense right now,” he says.
After talking to staff, he makes rounds to the patients who don’t have COVID-19 to say hello and check in. Sometimes he wears scrubs, but usually he wears just regular clothes and a black fleece jacket inscribed with the words “chaplain,” his name, and “doctor of ministry.” People still aren’t always sure what he does.
Before the coronavirus, when ministering to people, Cobb would hold them if it felt appropriate. He’s a touchy-feely guy, he says. But now, he has his own N95 respirator and stands 6 feet apart from everyone to minimize his risk of exposure. The work is harder by phone. It takes multiple calls to figure out where they are at emotionally and what needs they have.
When the virus first broke out, he’s sure he attended some deaths without any protection at all. He knows he’s been exposed and may even have contracted it, though he hasn’t shown any symptoms. He still monitors his own temperature, but he hasn’t had the chance to get tested. Now, when he makes rounds to the non-COVID-19 patients, he says hello from the doorway in a mask and he washes his hands constantly.
On Mondays and Fridays, he checks in with the hospital administrators at the end of his mornings to see how they are holding up, too. The crisis has affected everyone so he doesn’t want to leave them out either. Then comes lunch. Lots of companies have been donating food to the hospital to show their support for workers, so lately he’s been grabbing whatever is available and eating at his desk. The time gives him a chance to finish any charting work on the patients he is spending time with.
In the afternoon, he calls COVID-19 patients on the phone. When the cases first hit, he wore extra protective equipment like a gown and a face shield to see them in their rooms. But now there are simply too many COVID-19 patients. So to protect himself and to preserve the hospital’s stock of protective equipment, he simply calls them. Lots of his work is done by phone now, sometimes just down the hall from where patients are recovering.
A few days ago, he called up Martha, who is 60 and had been hospitalized. After a few days, her test had come back positive for COVID-19. Martha’s symptoms had started out mild, but then it became difficult for her to drink water. She stopped eating. Her family worried that if the coronavirus disease didn’t kill her then starvation might, so they brought her to the emergency room.
While in the hospital, her family broke the news to her that her father and uncle had died of COVID-19 back in Ecuador, where she had recently visited them. Both had been lucky to get coffins, but neither had a proper burial or service. Martha hadn’t gotten a chance to say goodbye.
Cobb asked Martha what he asks almost everyone: “What do you need?”
Martha wanted to make sure her son was all right. He had been at home alone and was possibly COVID-19-positive too. So Cobb got on the phone with Martha’s daughter. He spoke with Martha’s son, whose mental health had been declining while he was alone. He called an ambulance to pick him up so he could get tested for the coronavirus and get psychiatric support.
Sometimes doing a tangible thing for someone brings relief, says Cobb.
Cobb’s days are made up of finding a myriad of ways to give people relief, each tailored to individual patients. One family was having trouble with a funeral home that’s too busy to pick up the remains of their loved one who had passed away from COVID-19. Cobb scrolled through his phone and dialed the owner of a crematorium in Chicago that he works with regularly. The man was an hour and a half away, but he came anyway. “That’s my guy,” says Cobb.
Other times people just need someone to be with them, to make them feel understood. When people believe they are alone in what they feel — that’s when grief becomes dangerous, Cobb says. So he tries to reach out, and let them know that he’s there, too. And that they don’t have to suffer alone. “I will be here with you. I will walk this with you. I will cry with you. I will laugh with you,” he wants them to know.
Cobb didn’t start out as a hospital chaplain. He used to teach theology at St. Gregory, a Catholic school in Chicago that’s since been shuttered. He also coached basketball and baseball. That’s where he met his wife, Janet, when they were assigned to share a classroom 24 years ago.
He became a hospital chaplain in 2012 after trying it during his master’s program in theology. Janet, who now advises nonprofits, says she thought that he would make a good hospital chaplain, even before he considered doing it, because of his knack for connecting with people. He ministers to people wherever he goes, she says. Cobb says he’s become the minister even for his local bar — listening to people’s stories and helping support them. Everyone needs to be listened to without judgment, he says.
After watching him do this work for years, his wife knows how exhausting it is to speak with the family members of patients who have just died. She does her best to help him decompress. Last Sunday, that meant giving him the space to wind down rather than inviting him to hop on a large family Zoom call, she says. But even as the hospitals where he works have become infection zones where many are afraid to venture, Janet says she knows that her husband would never dream of staying home.
“You don’t tell a chaplain not to be a chaplain just because life gets crazy,” she says.
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His family’s support has been instrumental, Cobb says, but this is also what God wants for him.
Even as the number of deaths from COVID-19 continues to mount, Cobb doesn’t believe that people die alone. Sometimes when a person is about to die, he can feel his own body fill with love, he says. The Holy Spirit enters the room, and he knows the patient is going to a good place. Sometimes telling that to the family comforts them, he says.
The work is still hard. He grieves too. He cries. He gets angry. He feels what he needs to feel so he can support others. A few days ago, he counseled a pastor who had lost eight members of his congregation. The immense losses only make his work more critical, he says.
“It's a matter of reminding people of how valuable they are,” says Cobb. “Because they can easily forget.”
Cobb, who also works part time at a hospital on the south side of Chicago which serves mostly black patients, can’t help but notice that these days, in both hospitals where he works, it’s black people who are dying more than anyone else. He also teaches a college course on marginalization in the Catholic Church that’s shifted to online classes.
The CDC has not released any national data yet, but stark disparities have shown up in more than a dozen states, according to data compiled by BuzzFeed News. Nearly every person who’s died from the coronavirus in St. Louis was black, for example.
Cobb knows this. He lives the reality of a black man who has been treated by doctors who didn’t believe in his physical pain. He knows black people don’t always trust physicians. They have reasons not to, he says. He knows there are fewer emotional resources in the black community. He knows there are ingrained, systematic inequalities at every level that have led us to this point. His generation has experienced discrimination for so long that the disparity in COVID-19-related deaths is expected.
“This is how America is,” says Cobb.
Still, Cobb believes that when deaths arise out of injustice, his challenge is still to help the people who are left behind want to keep living. Forgiveness can be a powerful tool, he says. He cites how the congregation in South Carolina where nine black people were murdered forgave the shooter, Dylann Roof. For others, he tries to heal their anger, says Cobb. He shares his own experiences with racism. He tries to help people see that if they continue to hold onto that anger, if they wear it like a badge of honor, then the injustice will win.
He quotes the civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer who said in a 1964 speech that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” When they’re sick of it, he wants to help people let their anger go. There is so much freedom in letting go, he says.
Cobb’s shifts at the hospitals stretch 10 hours or so. When he gets home around 5 p.m., he picks up the change of clothes that his wife leaves for him on their porch. He showers. His two sons at home right now have asthma so he takes extra precautions after being at the hospital all day long. He doesn’t want to get his family sick.
He has more work to do tomorrow.