Fr Michael Stack spent more than five weeks in critical care at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn in 2020, due to Covid-19.
He “died” twice and was on a ventilator for three weeks before he miraculously pulled through, astonishing the medical team with his recovery.
He is full of praise for the doctors and nurses – but he also drew strength from being visited and prayed for by Catholic priest Fr Gordon Adam and Baptist hospital chaplain Rev Lee Gilbert.
Fr Michael himself has spent 25 years as a hospital chaplain and is now National Chaplain to the Association of Catholic Nurses of England & Wales (ACNEW). He knows the vital role chaplains can play for many patients and about the healing power of prayerful companionship with the sick and dying. He feels the experience has only strengthened his faith.
Within a short time of arriving in Norfolk for a holiday from Coventry, Fr Michael had developed a bad cough and started hallucinating. He was admitted by ambulance to hospital.
“I was on a ventilator for 21 days and 36 days in critical care,” said Fr Michael. “I don’t remember much because I was completely medicated – a blessing in disguise.”
Fr Michael had a tracheostomy to help his breathing and he had to learn to walk again after his 10-week hospital stay.
Prayers were said around the world for him as he lay unconscious with the most severe form of the virus in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
Fr Gordon Adam, Assistant Priest at King’s Lynn Catholic Parish, saw Fr Michael at least twice and said: “In hospital during the pandemic, especially with routine visiting in the hospital being prohibited, the work of chaplains to help people practice their faith while experiencing serious health problems becomes more important than ever. In the most extreme cases it is spiritual ‘critical care’ to help someone facing death know that their sins are absolved so that they can be at ease with God.”
On Easter Sunday, Baptist hospital chaplain Rev Lee Gilbert received a call from critical care nurses asking him to say some prayers for a Catholic priest who was under their care. Lee used Facetime with the nurses holding an iPad near to Fr Michael.
“Whilst I had no idea as to whether Fr Michael could hear me or not, I knew that God could hear me and afterwards I spoke to Fr Michael’s sister and told her what I had done and I believe it gave her a great deal of comfort when she herself could not come into the hospital.
“Slowly but surely Fr Michael’s health improved and he was transferred to a ward where I could go and have a face-to-face conversation and we reflected together on his journey through Covid-19 and through the hospital.
So what did Fr Michael, now living in Thetford, learn from his own close encounter with death in hospital? “I have become aware again that we rely on others. It is the prayers offers, the support offered to my family. It is the nurses and doctors on our NHS who by their care save lives – many lives. My gratitude is to the many life-savers and nursing staff who used their gifts to help me. Thank you.”
Fr Michael recalls a dozen of his own experiences as a hospital chaplain in his new short booklet Reflections by a Retired Hospital Chaplain
Among the episodes are a family throwing an 80th birthday party for dementia-sufferer Nina. The almost constant blank stare on her face lifted briefly when she tasted her favourite banana cake and a forgotten taste came back.
Teenager Zoe, suffered from Sickle Cell, which caused her great pain. “As we prayed together Zoe stopped crying and said thank you for listening to me. Listening to those who are sick is very important,” said Fr Michael. “We can give some answers, but most times silence and simply being there helps.”
Blind D-Day and Korea war veteran Tommy was also a double leg amputee. One day when Fr Michael went to visit, only one of Tommy’s prosthetic legs was beside his bed – the other was missing. The nurses started a search and found it in the ward bathroom. Fr Michael regularly wheeled Tommy to the Chapel Mass on Sunday and would then describe the chapel, altar and stain glass windows.
Talking to Polish former world war two pilot Boleslaw, he told Fr Michael about his role in over 80 bombings missions. “I contributed to so many deaths,” said Boleslaw. Fr Michael replied: “But you helped to bring the war to an end.” With tears in his eyes, Fr Michael said the prayer of Absolution (forgiveness) over Boleslaw. Afterwards Boleslaw said he felt different for their time together.
Bernard Longley, Archbishop of Birmingham, writes: “I am grateful to Fr Michael for his thoughtful and welcome contribution to our reflections on the experience of the pandemic. The 12 episodes from his own extensive experience of ministering to the sick, including his own encounter with Covid-19, help us to realise how much we rely on the care of others at such moments when we are unable to look after ourselves and the importance of prayer.”
Reflections by a Retired Hospital Chaplain is available from Fr Michael for £5 from Michael.email@example.com or the bookshop at the Catholic national Shrine in Walsingham, all proceeds to ACNEW
Pictured above is Fr Michael Stack. Picture by Con McHugh.