On the front lines of COVID with a word and a prayer
The Rev. Sherry Perry knows what it's like to have COVID, and she brings her experience to patients and families as chaplain on VUMC's COVID unitNovember 17, 2020
The Rev. Sherry Perry, M.Div., is chaplain on VUMC’s COVID unit. Photo by Donn Jones
Sherry Perry is a front-line worker in VUMC’s main COVID-19 unit, but while others are caring for the physical needs of patients, she focuses on other aspects — she is the unit’s chaplain.
“We walk into times of anxiety, chaos, emotional and spiritual disruption. That’s what chaplains do,” she said.
Perry experienced her own period of disruption when in March, early in the pandemic, she was diagnosed with COVID-19.
“I can identify with patients who talk about their feelings of isolation and stigma. The feeling ashamed that you ‘allowed’ yourself to get sick. I try to be present with them. I want them to feel safe to talk to me.”
When she is speaking with patients and family members on the unit, she brings her pastoral background as well as her experience as a patient.
“I bring my experience of having had the thing, COVID-19, that frightens people,” she said.
“Feeling like a harbinger of this invisible thing that can harm and even kill was hard. Especially early on in this pandemic as we were only beginning to learn about it.”
“I can identify with patients who talk about their feelings of isolation and stigma,” she said. “The feeling ashamed that you ‘allowed’ yourself to get sick. I try to be present with them. I want them to feel safe to talk to me.”
The Rev. Perry, M.Div., comes to her calling as a chaplain naturally.
“I come from a military family. Chaplains were part of my life,” she said.
“Chaplains go with people on the mission. And we are on this mission together — patients, families, caregivers.”
Her husband George served in the U.S. Navy for 16 years, and their two sons also went into the service — son Aaron was in the Tennessee Army National Guard and served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his brother Sean served in the U.S. Air Force where he provided IT support to special forces.
“Chaplains go with people on the mission,” Perry said. “And we are on this mission together — patients, families, caregivers.”
Perry first came to VUMC as a student intern from the Vanderbilt Divinity School in 2012. Her first job after graduating in 2013 and completing a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) residency with the Veteran’s Administration was as the chaplain at a long-term care facility in Nashville.
Becoming a chaplain was a second career for Perry; her first career was as an IT support person. She got an inkling that she was better suited to a career offering a different kind of support when she would be on the phone with customers and find herself concerned with their lives as much as their computers.
“When I was on support calls with people, I felt more pastoral than ‘let’s fix it and get it done,’” she said with a laugh.
“This has stretched me in ways I never would have thought as a chaplain. I have pulled out everything I have ever learned about this as a vocation.”
She was working as the evening chaplain supporting the entire hospital when the pandemic hit, including the eighth floor of Medical Center East when it functioned as a cardiac step-down unit. When the unit transitioned to become the hospital’s COVID unit, she volunteered to serve on the unit in support of COVID patients and their families — as did most of the unit’s staff.
“The resilience they have shown has allowed me to see teams at their very best,” she said of her co-workers on the unit.
Perry spends her days wearing appropriate PPE, first rounding with the physicians and nurse practitioners and getting to hear patients’ stories. Later in the day she is able to speak with patients and their families.
Some of the stories are heartbreaking, and some are extraordinary in other ways.
“We had a patient who had 14 family members diagnosed with COVID,” she said.
Whatever the situation, Perry said that she feels fortunate to have the opportunity to serve on the COVID unit.
“This has stretched me in ways I never would have thought as a chaplain,” she said. “I have pulled out everything I have ever learned about this as a vocation.”
“I love my job,” she said. “It is sometimes fraught with emotion in many ways. Yet, as chaplains, we are trained to walk into situations and seek opportunities to bring light into darkness and comfort in the midst of chaos.”