From first cries to final goodbyes

A Presbyterian couple delivers compassionate care at life’s beginning and end

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

Amy and the Rev. Dr. Whitney Dempsey (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Whitney and Amy Dempsey have a decorative wooden sign hanging in the hallway of their home in Colorado. It’s a Japanese proverb that they both feel summarizes the essence of the work they do: “The sun setting is no less beautiful than the sun rising.”

Whitney and Amy work at a Denver metropolitan hospital. Whitney is a hospice chaplain, assisting patients and families at end of life, and Amy is a labor and delivery nurse, welcoming new life into the world. Whitney also serves as a half-time interim pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Georgetown and Amy is a ruling elder at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arvada, where she and the couple’s three children have attended for more than a decade.

The Dempseys met more than three decades ago during a one-semester exchange program at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. They recently marked 26 years of marriage at the COVID vaccination clinic where Amy volunteers 4-6 hours each week. Denver’s 9News crew featured Amy giving Whitney his second COVID vaccination. Watch the video.

“Before [COVID] we were moving toward unlimited visiting hours 24/7 with unlimited numbers,” Amy said of the medical center. “We just had an open campus. It was beautiful. We had families coming around the clock to welcome and say goodbye.”

Labor and delivery nurse Amy Dempsey receives her first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. (Contributed photo)

From the birthing side of things, “Pregnant moms do a really good job of social isolation, wearing masks and observing community health recommendations,” Amy said. She recognizes that rules limiting visitors to one designated support person are tough for families and for staff, but absolutely necessary during the pandemic.

“This last case we had, where the mom was positive for COVID, dad was positive too. So he ‘physically’ missed the birth of his child because we can’t allow any positive COVID visitors into the hospital,” she said. The hospital does, however, use video platforms to include family virtually in the birth of their baby.

At end of life, it’s like the stories many people have heard. As a hospice chaplain, Whitney is in the room in full personal protective gear, holding the iPad for a family to tell their loved one goodbye. “It’s really hard because you are hearing these moments that are really private and are supposed to be private, but you have to hold that iPad for them,” Whitney said.

Sometimes it’s possible to have outside-inside “window visits” or “patio visits.” Or, if a family is large, sometimes patients can be wheeled outside for loved ones to say goodbye.

The Rev. Dr. Whitney Dempsey, a hospice chaplain, dons his personal protective equipment. (Contributed photo)

“In addition to the physical demands of caring for COVID patients, there are also the emotional demands,” Whitney said. “While we have certainly become accustomed to wearing PPE, our staff still feels the hardships of patients being alone at such a vulnerable time. A patient dying alone is not what hospice is about. The moral distress the staff feels is very real.”

When times get tough, Whitney said he thinks about the tremendous sense of teamwork he has seen among the medical center staff — not only physicians and nurses but the people who clean the rooms, the certified nursing assistants — in short, the entire care team. “Medical people really do a good job of reaching out to one another, caring for one another, making sure they’ve got each other’s backs and helping out,” he said.

Whitney said he’s been inspired by the 60 or so members of First Presbyterian Church of Georgetown, a community of about 1,000 residents.

“They’ve kind of kept me going,” Whitney said. “Their pivot to Zoom in one weekend was amazing, and they have not complained once. They have not said, ‘We have to get back together in person.’ They are taking care of one another. They’re checking in on one another. They’re just a lovely congregation.”

“I’ve felt like Whit and his colleagues and our ICU friends have borne the brunt of this pandemic care, our med-surg nurses, too, for that matter,” Amy said. “I’ve done a lot of the planning part of this pandemic and I’m involved in a lot of policy writing, surge planning and preparation, but I haven’t borne the brunt of putting on the PPE every time I go in to see one of my patients. So for me, I felt like working in the vaccine clinic was a way I could give back.”

Amy gets choked up thinking back to the beginning of the vaccine clinic, giving the shots to some of her ICU colleagues at the medical center. “I get teary even thinking about it. They were just so overwhelmed with joy and hope,” she said. “It was really an exciting thing to be part of — very satisfying to think, ‘OK, this is my little piece of this big puzzle, and I can contribute in this significant way.’”

Caring for others is difficult, physically and emotionally, so Whitney and Amy both say the outdoors has been even more of a respite for them in the past year. “I feel like Colorado just lends itself to living in a pandemic,” Amy said. She completed a bucket list backpack trip with two of their children, Andrew and Abby, last summer, and Whitney and Andrew decided to learn to play golf together. “He got better than I did,” Whitney said. Their middle child, Emma, used her time to learn to fly fish with her father.

In May, Whitney graduated from the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary with his Doctor of Ministry degree and Amy began working toward her doctorate. Pursuing an advanced degree may not be a de-stressor, but she does think it has been “a blessing.” It has helped her fill some downtime and focus, in a positive way, on advancing her studies. “I’ve taken some fascinating classes,” she said. “It’s been really interesting to take epidemiology during the COVID outbreak.”

Amy recently gave her husband, the Rev. Dr. Whitney Dempsey, his second COVID vaccine, on the couple’s 26th wedding anniversary. (Contributed photo)

Looking back at the many people it has taken to produce and distribute COVID vaccines in such a short time, Amy and Whitney both see more in this gift of the vaccines, which began arriving during Advent.

“I feel like the vaccine is a gift from God, to be very honest,” Amy said. “Whit and I have talked a lot about this together. That whole period of pregnancy and waiting, anticipation and then being given this gift by God, but also the magi bringing gifts. It was just all so symbolic.”

“Our magi are UPS drivers and truck drivers,” Whitney said, “the people who deliver it and people who made it.”

What would Amy say to anyone who’s unsure about getting the vaccination?

“Obviously there is a lot of individual decision-making that goes into the process, along with physician guidance,” she said. “People have different types of underlying conditions that might impact their decision to take this, but if you are able, I’m 100% for it. I feel like it’s our bit of hope.”

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?