Through the dream world of heavy sedation, unmoored from time and space, a psalm drifted. Long before COVID-19 tried to claim his earthly body, Bishop Steve Wood loved the Psalms, including this one.
You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.
As the psalm meandered, the sedation gave way to hospital lights. The ventilator beside him quieted. His skin registered the negative pressure room’s chilly, dry air. Dreams scattered at the beeping of a giant arm of monitors tracking the pace of his fight for life in an ICU room at East Cooper Medical Center.
People in what looked like hazmat suits peered at him, only their eyes visible behind shields.
At 56, the father of four had once trained for a triathlon. He led the bustling St. Andrew’s Church in Mount Pleasant with 2,000 members. He was bishop of a regional diocese with 31 churches and four new ones being planted.
Now, at the foot of his bed, a white board told the names of his nurses, doctors, medications. And the date.
It was April 1.
No, he thought, it’s a joke.
He’d been on a ventilator, fighting COVID-19, for 10 days.
And lived to realize it.
The first weekend of March, not long before he got sick, Wood had traveled to Pawleys Island to lead a gathering of people from the Diocese of the Carolinas, a group of Anglican parishes. About 150 pastors and lay delegates from across the southeast attended, including Wood and two other ministers from St. Andrew’s.
During the conference, one of Wood’s sons welcomed a second child into their lives, so he drove to Charleston to be at the hospital when little Bowman, their third grandchild, arrived. Then he headed back.
It was normal for him, this busyness, this bouncing among people and duties. He loved it.
Coronavirus was in the news, yes, but not like now.
While Wood was busy with the conference and his new grandson, South Carolina saw its first two cases. One was in rural Kershaw County toward the middle of the state. The other was an MUSC employee who had just returned from Europe and self-quarantined before returning to work.
Nobody close, nothing worrisome.
The next week brought a cascade of news. After a Utah Jazz player tested positive, the NBA suspended its season. The NCAA cancelled its tournaments. The MLB suspended its season.
Still, that all felt far away. Wood focused on whether to hold in-person worship services that Sunday, March 15.
He reached out to other pastors. Some were going online that Sunday, but others were not yet. They had no orders to close. And schools remained open. In fact, a few days earlier, Wood had heard that school officials weren’t planning to close them just yet.
He decided to go ahead with St. Andrew's six usual services — but with new precautions. Worship leaders encouraged parishioners not to hug, not even to elbow-bump, and to fan out 3 feet apart. They passed the peace with a wave. And no communion cup. Servers dropped the bread into worshippers’ hands, not touching them, and made liberal use of hand-sanitizer.
Wood felt comfortable that they were doing what they could to minimize risk of spread.
Yet, the Rev. Anthony Kowbeidu, an associate rector, passed out briefly during a service. Out of caution, he went to the ER where, although he showed no other symptoms, they gave him a coronavirus test. Results would take several days, at least.
Wood sent an email to parishioners assuring them Kowbeidu was fine: "He passed out for a few seconds then recovered completely. He has not been ill except for some mild seasonal allergies."
Wood, however, wasn’t at the services.
He’d self-quarantine a few days earlier because he’d begun to feel sick, in the way he usually did as Charleston’s azaleas burst into pink glory and the live oaks shed their leaves.
He had a cough. Then he ran a fever.
It felt like the allergy-induced bronchitis he often gets this time of year.
He stayed home, just in case, and called his doctor, who directed him to the Medical University of South Carolina’s telemedicine portal. On Monday, they sent him to get a coronavirus test at MUSC’s drive-through site in West Ashley, the results of which would take several days.
His wife, Jacqui, an MUSC nurse, rode with him as he coughed in the car.
Then she took him to the hospital for a chest X-ray.
It looked normal.
So, Wood got his usual routine of steroids and antibiotics and went home.
The next day, he felt better. St. Andrew’s suspended its in-person services, in keeping with Gov. Henry McMaster’s order barring gatherings of more than 100 people.
He also spoke to the Rev. Randy Forrester, one of the church’s associate ministers, who also had gone to the Pawleys Island conference and had self-quarantined after feeling sick. They compared symptoms, which didn't look much alike.
Forrester, a healthy 40-year-old, at first thought he had a cold. Then a fever and headache set in. Chills and aches rattled him. He thought he had the flu.
The next day, with no word back on the coronavirus test, and Wood still on the mend, Jacqui went back to work. After she returned home, he worsened. His breathing felt labored. Overnight, his temperature soared to 102 degrees. Jacqui went into nurse mode.
Something isn’t right, she thought. Eight days had passed since his first symptoms.
Back to the hospital they drove. When she pulled up, the staff wouldn’t let her come with him. Inside, a radiologist did another chest X-ray. A doctor called Jacqui.
“This is exactly what COVID patients look like,” she warned.
Later that day, Rev. Kowbeidu got his test results. He, too, had gone to the conference. He, too, had the virus. Then they heard that the spouse of a lay delegate at the meeting had tested positive, as well.
Wood's X-ray showed the telltale signs of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Dark areas that showed healthy lung filled with air looked like thin bat wings. Canula tubes in his nose delivered high doses of oxygen to his lungs.
Yet, his body struggled to absorb it. His lungs labored to breathe. Exhaustion drained him.
The next day, Wood's coronavirus test came back positive. That afternoon, South Carolina public health officials announced 45 new cases and two deaths, including the first in Charleston County.
A team of medical workers garbed in masks, gowns and gloves wheeled Wood to the ICU. He sent Jacqui a picture of a new mask they put on him. When she saw it, she tried not to panic.
Wood’s doctor arrived with the best spin possible on bad news. Wood needed to go on a ventilator. Let the machine do the work. Let your lungs rest and heal. Better to begin now than wait and do it in an emergency situation.
As he waited to be sedated and intubated, Wood sat in his ICU room alone. He spoke with Jacqui, then called each of their four grown sons. He told them he loved them, that he was proud of the men they’d become.
Then, just before sedation carried him away, Wood got a text from a longtime clergy friend. The man spoke from one pastor to another: remember the advice they often gave others.
“As you go into the hours ahead, when you will perhaps have to give up conscious control of all things, place yourself into his own hands, once again. Yield to him afresh. He will not let you go.”
Wood gave his phone to his doctor, along with the pass code, and clung to the message.
He will not let you go.
Over the next 10 days, as a ventilator breathed for him, so much in the outside world changed.
Churches went online. Rev. Forrester tested positive, the third minister at St. Andrew’s. And around Mount Pleasant, people who normally filled its waterways and parks, its restaurants and playgrounds, huddled at home. Shem Creek, with its shrimp boats and restaurants normally swarmed with patrons, sat silent beneath the laughing gulls.
The city of Charleston issued a stay-at-home order. Mount Pleasant did, too. Eventually, the governor did, as well.
Restaurants closed. Stores closed. Beaches closed. Parks closed.
New York became the world’s new hot spot. In South Carolina, cases climbed.
As they did, Wood lay in his ICU room alone. He didn’t know that outside, in the hospital's empty visitor lot, his parishioners gathered in their cars, some standing safe distances apart, to pray for him.
At one point, Wood’s doctors tried to remove him from the ventilator. For two hours, they tried. But his lungs were too sick.
Jacqui fought the fear. She prayed and prayed.
In the first days, she was mostly scared. She couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. She cried out to God. Did he want her to surrender her husband to him?
"God, let your will be done," she prayed. She felt more peace then. If Wood's time was up, she felt solace knowing he was in good hands.
Their youngest son, Sammy, had come home from Clemson University the night before Wood went into the hospital. Now, Jacqui prayed thanks for his company. If not for him, she’d be in the house alone, day after frightening day.
Instead, they woke up and took their temperatures together each day wondering if one of them would be next.
One day, Sammy felt certain everything tasted funny. Two days later, Jacqui did. Sammy began to sneeze. She had a sore throat. Or was it all just the symptoms they’d read about?
Jacqui called the ICU three times a day for updates. Twice, while Wood was ventilated, she got to see him over FaceTime. She read him Scripture, including Psalm 91, the one that speaks of resting in God’s shadow.
But she wasn't sure her husband could hear her at all.
Over the years, Wood had tucked a lot of Scripture close to his heart. Also, a lot of bad poetry. The stanza of one circled through his dreams, a line about “fighting one more round.” In it, he felt God’s presence. He felt God’s words, not audible ones, but the weight of their meaning:
“You’ve run a good race, and if you want to come home, you can.”
Wood felt bone-tired, and the promise of eternal sleep beckoned. Yet, he fought it. In the murk, Psalm 91 wound through his thoughts.
You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday.
Early on, the medical team told Jacqui that her husband might be on the ventilator three to five days. But so much about this new virus remained unknown. They consulted with doctors across the country and across the state.
As Wood approached his first week on the ventilator, his medical team wanted to try removing him from it. His X-rays looked better, his oxygen saturation improved.
But his body could not handle breathing on its own.
More time, more loneliness, more fear. Jacqui saw on the news that the average COVID-19 patient was staying on a ventilator closer to eight to 11 days. She figured that if he went more than 11 days, she’d panic more.
On day 10, a Monday, his doctor tried again to wean him.
This time, his lungs responded. He no longer needed the ventilator.
His overnight nurse got him out of bed and into a chair. The nurse took a picture around 4 a.m. and texted it to Jacqui.
The next day, his nurse called Jacqui on FaceTime so she could see her husband. Wood could barely get his hand to his mouth. His throat was too raw to speak. But he could answer yes and no.
He was in there. He would be OK. They would all be OK.
Still groggy, in that space between dream and reality, Wood lay alone in his ICU room; no visitors allowed. He came to know his nurses by their eyes, the only part of them he could see through the masks and shields and gowns and gloves.
For hours, he watched the monitor that showed his breathing, his heart rate, his oxygen saturation.
And he prayed. An evangelical at heart, he’d once sent a youth group to the beach to discuss the Gospel with sunbathing strangers. Now, he asked God to bring people to mind, and he prayed for each as they did.
One day, a nurse arrived encased in protective gear to give him a sponge bath. It felt life-giving: the human touch, the warm water, the cleansing of his skin at a time of such intense loneliness.
Another day, a nurse shaved him. He'd never felt more grateful.
Yet, he still felt so weak. He could only stare at Jacqui on his phone and cling to her image.
His nurses got him up and let him take a few steps with a walker. Then a few more. Then around the room, which he wasn’t allowed to leave.
His hands and fingers trembled. He couldn’t tie his shoes, couldn’t make his fingers even cross the laces. But that too improved, and when he tied them on his own, his nurse cheered for him.
A few days later, Jacqui pulled up to the hospital’s front door. The staff directed her to the back.
In a wheelchair, her husband emerged — covered in a gown, mask, cap, gloves. Nurses in full protective gear brought him to her.
Relief poured over her, overwhelming her.
For the first week, he slept often, prayed often and cried often. He cried for the world, suffering during this pandemic. He cried for the near-loss of his own life. He cried for those he loved. He cried for those who had died of this terrible virus. He cried with gratitude for his own life.
It was Holy Week.
Wood had lost more than 30 pounds. His arms felt like chicken wings. He used a walker.
At dusk one night, he noticed silhouettes outside in the street. People had stopped outside his home to pray. Their presence felt so warm, so meaningful, in his isolation at home.
He couldn't watch the news and tried not to dwell over how he contracted the virus. “Trying to find patient zero is like trying to find the holy grail,” he said.
By then, the southern Mount Pleasant ZIP code where Wood lives, and where St. Andrew’s sits, had one of the state’s highest numbers of confirmed cases. Northern Mount Pleasant wasn’t far behind. But it was almost impossible to tell if the three ministers at St. Andrew's had spread it, given state health officials weren't tracking infection that way.
Of the church's seven clergy and three lay delegates who attended the Pawleys Island conference, member Jan Truesdale was the only other one who tested positive. Truesdale, who has asthma, struggled with low oxygen levels and battled pneumonia but was recuperating in her house with home oxygen.
Wood felt certain that they’d done everything they knew to do that Sunday during the last in-person service to protect other parishioners. “And I haven’t heard of any widespread illness — or really any — at St. Andrew’s.”
Last weekend, after his doctor cleared him to go for a walk, Jacqui drove him to their live oak-draped church. The streets were empty, the parking lot emptier.
St. Andrew's had suffered a massive electrical fire two years earlier that gutted its Ministry Center. When he’d surveyed the damage that early Sunday morning, Wood had remembered then, as now, that God promised to bring beauty from ashes.
For two years since, the congregation had been hard at work to replace it, preparing to open the new $14 million Ministry Center in July. Wood realized that he will be there to see it.
This past Friday, two weeks after Wood came home, he and Jacqui peered through their front storm door waiting for their son and his young family to arrive.
Jacqui had shaved her husband's head when he came home, determined to rid him of any COVID residue. Now, he looked like a Citadel knob, blue eyes smiling. Watching him, she wondered how many others like him were so surprisingly at risk of dying from this virus.
“You just never know who’s vulnerable,” she said. “He’s in his 50s. He was healthy.”
Over the six weeks since Wood left for the Pawleys Island conference, South Carolina had seen its confirmed cases rise sharply to almost 4,100. In just a few hours, state health officials would announce seven more deaths, for a total of 116. A middle-aged person with no underlying medical problems would be among them.
Wood has a CT scan and lab work scheduled for late May. He expects another month to pass before he can go out much. His sense of taste remains off kilter.
Will the virus come back? Will he be immune? The most consistent answer he gets from medical experts: “We don’t know.”
Beneath warm spring sunshine, their son Nick pulled up with his wife and two young children, including the baby born while Wood was at the diocesan meeting where he might have contracted the virus. They sat outside, talking to Wood and Jacqui through a storm door, watching their 4-year-old daughter sprint around the yard collecting sticks and dead magnolia leaves.
Wood peered at his baby grandson, so new to this life, born just six weeks ago. For him, it felt like a lifetime.