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Seattle pastor survives coronavirus


Says she was ‘held spiritually tight’ after entering ‘blissful mindlessness’

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

Pictured on the way to get tested for coronavirus, the Rev. Jane Pauw, who serves Rainier Beach Presbyterian Church in Seattle, blacked out in the car on the way home. (Photo by Jack Pauw)

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Jane Pauw remembers the date, March 12, when she blacked out and entered into the darkness, into what she calls “a warm, mindless comfort” that she had never experienced before.

One of the first few hundred Americans to be tested for COVID-19, Pauw’s sinuses were already swollen when a long bendable swab entered her nasal cavity.

“It felt like they were getting as close as possible to my brain and then they twisted it,” she said.

Within 10 minutes of feeling excruciating pain, Pauw was on her way home with her husband Jack when she blacked out in the car.  She’d had an adverse reaction known as vasovagal syncope, which causes one’s heart rate and blood pressure to drop suddenly. That leads to reduced blood flow to the brain, which causes the person to briefly lose consciousness.

Pauw’s first coronavirus-like symptoms began in early March. On February 29, she picked up an 80-year-old  Rainer Beach Presbyterian Church parishioner from a local bus stop and drove her to a Bible study at a coffee shop about 20 minutes away.

Within two days, one of the congregant’s best friends had died of COVID-19 at the residential facility where she lived. While all the residents were being tested — the asymptomatic congregant was positive — Pauw was on lunch date with two friends who kept raving about how good the food was.

“I kept trying it, but I couldn’t taste or smell anything,” she said.

Then she began to feel tired. When exhaustion, chest congestion and a deep cough settled in, her doctor recommended she get tested for the coronavirus at a Tacoma urgent care center about 45 minutes away.

After the test, and until her fever broke on March 19, Pauw had a temperature of about 102 degrees. She had deep body aches, was nauseous and had no appetite.  A few times she crawled to get water. Going down the stairs, she felt like a child again, sitting and sliding for a few steps before pausing to rest.

Unable to concentrate, she entered into what she called a state of “blissful mindlessness,” where she was spared any real emotional involvement in her illness.

“While I didn’t feel comfortable physically, I never felt afraid or worried about myself,” she said, “but spiritually I was being held tight.”

Even as her daughters were frantically calling daily to check in, even when Jack stood by her bed to make sure she was still alive, even when church members felt like they wanted to come and say their goodbyes, Pauw felt nothing but that warm, mindless comfort.

Thinking back on it, she believes it was an answer to prayer and that it was God holding her tight, erasing all fear and anxiety — even though she didn’t know it then.

“Somebody was holding me,” she says, “but others were doing it for me by praying.”

Pictured here on a city walk in Lublin, Poland last year, 60-year-old Jane Pauw, a long-distance walker, had no underlying health conditions when she was infected with the coronavirus. (Photo by Jack Pauw)

While Pauw’s sense of smell and taste are returning, she continues to live with fatigue, having about half the energy she used to. Perhaps because of this, she senses the slow movement of the Holy Spirit in the darkness of the coronavirus, showing us that things have to change.

Particularly meaningful to Pauw, now that she can read and concentrate again, is this passage from “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” by the Episcopalian priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor:

“The way most people talk about darkness, you would think that it came from a whole different deity, but no. To be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up. To want a life with only half of these things is to want only half a life, shutting the other half away where it will not interfere with one’s bright fantasies of the way things ought to be.”

In her Easter reflection, delivered from her yard, Pauw talked of seeing a recent social media post of a duck that had laid 12 eggs.

Pauw said that watching the duck sit on her eggs for as long as it took reminded her of being bathed in that kind of “warm, beautiful darkness, where deep formation happens in the stillness.”

“The reality is the most astounding mystery of our faith: The resurrection took place in the dark,” she said. “And those who came and entered the tomb couldn’t see it immediately or understand what was happening.”

Pauw is hesitant to talk about how the coronavirus has changed her. While there are important individual and communal lessons to learn, she said she doesn’t want to jump to any conclusions of what those might be just yet.

“In my little death, followed by stay-at-home orders for a month, I feel a bit like I’m in a hermit cell,” she said, “trying to find the ways that Jesus is in solidarity with me, with us and the world.”

Thinking about the people for whom she laments in their illness and for those who might die alone, she said, “We always pray for people not to just be well, but for God to be with them. Could it be that God accompanies all people with this gift of warm, mindless comfort?”

“I know that I was held,” she said. “What if we are priests for one another, in very deep, life-saving ways?”

Rainier Beach Presbyterian Church is located in the nation’s most diverse ZIP Code, 98118. The church’s demographics have changed over the past 12 years as new refugees from different parts of Africa mostly Burundi — have joined. The church has received many delightful gifts from its diverse membership. However, in the past year, as South Seattle has been gentrifying, many of these families have had to move away from the Rainier Beach area.

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.

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