Fred Notes: April 20, 2020

Fred Notes is a recurring column by Fred Faust

Heartache, Cope and Hope

By Fred Faust

These are the thoughts, experiences and hopes of three members of the Greater Lowell community in confronting the impacts of the corona virus.

Dr. Chip Gonsalves

On the Front Lines

Dr. Arthur “Chip” Gonsalves is on the front lines, experiencing the exhaustion and heartache of COVID-19, by choice. He is a vascular surgeon (veins and circulatory), but with elective procedures sidelined, he has stepped forward.  This means multiple shifts in two different hospitals. He works alongside exhausted technicians and medical personnel, placing central lines in the chest and neck for IV access and dialysis, particularly in Covid-19 ICU patients.

The challenge of the surge of patients and their distanced loved ones has also come with personal impacts. At the outset of this decision to serve, Dr. Gonsalves sat down with his wife and five children to bluntly discuss the risk of exposure to the virus.

“My wife cried,” he recalled. “We prayed. She let me go.”

“This is something I never imagined in life. We are surrounded by heroic nurses, doctors and techs, coping every hour with keeping people alive, but also observing last rites and death.”

There are positives that he takes to heart. They sometimes come with the smallest of gestures. A smile or a tap on the glass from familiar medical personnel once they recognize him behind his protective gear.

In his so-called spare time, “Chip” Gonsalves purchased a vacant church in Pawtucketville, became an ordained pastor, and started a faith based religious movement known as Fusion Lowell. The large former St. Jeanne d’Arc Church, had been closed by the Boston Archdiocese due to shrinking populations. Chip and his wife and a corps of volunteers restored the historic church, which is now attended by neighbors and diverse congregants. Fusion Lowell is a place of faith, as well as a movement for social good, assisting with learning, fielding a food pantry, job training and recreation.

Today, asked about his hopes for the future, Chip Gonsalves pauses, immersed in a cause that none of us envisioned. He does not have thoughts beyond the moment. There is no time. “Right now, I’m focused on this opportunity to help. I don’t ask God, why?” he says, “I ask, what do you want me to do?”

Jim O’Donnell

No Handshakes, No Hugs

“Comfort is much harder today,” according to James F. (Jim) O’Donnell, Jr., a Lowell funeral home director with 40-plus years in the profession. Funeral directors deal daily with loss, grief and the organizational tasks that help families get through stages of loss. Today, however, the job is different.

“We don’t do hugs or handshakes any longer. We wear masks and communicate on Skype,” reflects O’Donnell. Generations of O’Donnell’s have operated the prominent Lowell funeral home since 1884.  In the days of the corona virus, he continues to deal with loss and grief – but with more limited options.

“Comfort is much harder now. The typical stages of grieving have been left behind. A majority of our job was helping with the process and stages of grief. Today families and friends are challenged in offering support. People cannot pay a visit or come together. “With the virus, there are no church services because of the risks. Even graveside services with clergy are limited to ten or fewer people and all participants need to be socially distanced.”

Some families are postponing ceremonies or turning to cremation.  The health risks of the virus are also of concern to O’Donnell in terms of protecting his staff and caring for families. “We are very conscious about health, social distancing and absolutely going by the rules as laid out by public health officials,” says O’Donnell. “Everyone needs to take this virus very seriously.”

O’Donnell, too, is a person of faith. There he is able to find personal comfort and perspective in life. “For me, hope and faith  are the two most important factors.” He is also admiring of the human spirit that he has encountered in his business during this adversity. “My observation is that it’s very encouraging that people going through difficult times have been very understanding of the new world we’re living in.”

O’Donnell returns without prompting to his faith and belief in God, addressing the same question that previously occurred to Dr. Gonsalves.

“Faith, if you have it, helps you explain the unexplained. People ask, why would God let this happen? But if you have faith, then you have hope. Hope that there is a future and things ahead that will help us. When things are dire faith can help.”

O’Donnell also has faith in his hometown. “We live in a community that has defied the odds and that has rebounded on more than once occasion.  I take comfort in the core strengths I see in the Lowell community. The city keeps coming back because of our people and leadership. I choose to believe that this is our great advantage.”

Szifra Birke

Hope and Cope           

Szifra Birke is a Lowell business and financial counselor with degrees in psychology and a master’s degree in counselling. She faces the dilemma many of us share. We see the sacrifices and hardships borne by others. With shelter in place, we wonder, what can I or should I do?

Reality hit Birke after returning from time off in Tucson, Arizona, with her partner Jay Livingston. In what seems a life away – but was only a matter of weeks – they enjoyed riding bikes, meals outdoors on the patio while observing the hover of hummingbirds.

Now Birke is largely staying at home, looking for ways to help, and using her professional experience to find reasons for hope. Through her Lowell Ladies Lunch Group, she is promoting an initiative called “Feed the Fight, Lowell.” Feed the Fight is a go fund page to support front line Lowell hospital workers and laid off  restaurant employees. It was started earlier this month by two 20-year old Chelmsford women. The link is:

There are others to be concerned about as well according to Birke. “For someone with a family member who is ill, been laid off, a single mom with children at home, for people trying to keep food on the table, what do you do? For a business too, this is clearly a nervous time.”

Birke’s counsel is to remain as active as possible; mentally and physically, “It’s good for the psyche.” She noticed that her own ideas of coming home to tackle deferred tasks never really happened. She lacked energy and was easily distracted. She needed to have an internal discussion and apply lessons to her own behavior. Are there any positive lessons of coping with a pandemic?

“I think of this time in terms of other transitions we go through as well,” Birke observes. ”In life, there are new beginnings.” Birke mentions William Bridges, an author and expert on transitional theories.  “Rather than a beginning, middle and end, here we may have a middle, an end and then go to a new beginning – with a lot of neutral in the middle. The problem now is that the brain wants to know, what’s next.” Birke says that this is basic to survival. “We need to know what’s coming around the corner. We just don’t have that answer right now.”

She is hopeful that in the next weeks or months, we will have more information that will help to fill in the blanks. She concedes that we face “what now seems like a very uncertain future.”

In the best of outcomes, Birke sees the so-called new normal as a base for growth and adaptation.

“With new learning, we bring the best of ourselves.  Strength, perseverance. There are elements of posttraumatic stress but also post-traumatic growth. I’m hopeful that there will be positives.”

Personally, Birke finds comfort in activities that ground her and give her predictable day to day routines. This includes reading to her grandchildren over the phone, which also helps to take the burden off of her son and daughter-in-law, and also supporting her extended family. “I’m giving in little ways,” she says, “I like how that feels.”

6 Responses to Fred Notes: April 20, 2020

  1. Clare Collins Gunther says:

    Thanks for this, Fred. Reading this was a great way for me to start the day.

  2. Szifra Birke says:

    Fred, thanks for working to bring meaning from adversity. I appreciate the time and energy you spent interviewing us, culling from all we said, and crafting a cohesive story for your readers.

  3. Carol Holbrook says:

    Loved reading about these three inspirational individuals . I am continually awed by stories of humanity and benevolence during these uncertain times.Thank you for sharing, Fred.

  4. Howard Amidoin says:

    Nice piece Fred. Good news about good people and good work is so welcome these days. Fresh air. Thank you.

  5. John Wooding says:

    Fred – these are nicely done. We need to hear these voices and these stories…