As lead chaplain for the M Health Fairview system, Imam Tamer Abdelaziz uses faith to comfort patients: “Sometimes family members are present in the room and we’re all dressed in full PPE, praying together before the patient passes away.” Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Though his mosque has been closed for months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Imam Tamer Abdelaziz is plenty busy these days. 

Abdelaziz is the lead Muslim chaplain at M Health Fairview, one of Minnesota’s biggest healthcare providers. He works a full week serving patients with all types of illnesses; he’s also on call once a week to counsel patients with COVID-19.

He’s witnessed a handful of COVID-19 patients on their deathbeds. It’s in these moments that Abdelaziz tries to connect them to their spirituality through prayers, Quranic verses and support.

“They’re being reminded of their legacy and the good things that they’ve done, and the possibility of entering God’s mercy and entering paradise,” he said.

Though he lives in the Twin Cities, Abdelaziz also serves as imam at the Islamic Society of Northern Wisconsin, in Altoona, located about two hours away. 

Abdelaziz’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Egypt in the 1970s. He was born in Minneapolis—at a medical center in the very same health system he now works in.

Raised a Muslim, Abdelaziz said he rekindled his faith while he was in his early 20s and started studying it on an academic level. In all, Abdelaziz estimates 90 percent of the patients he sees are Muslim, and that the vast majority are immigrants. 

Sahan Journal spoke with Abdelaziz about bringing faith into medicine and how the pandemic has upended his work over the past few months. The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Sahan Journal: What was your day-to-day activity like as a chaplain before COVID-19 came?

Tamer Abdelaziz: Visiting Muslim patients mainly for support. A lot of times I would enter a patient room and they’d have a really difficult diagnosis, such as acute renal failure, and they’ve got to go on dialysis. We’re there to comfort patients. We really try to utilize their spirituality and their belief into their healing.

A lot of times toward the end of the visit, patients will ask for Islamic prayer or Quranic recitation. I’ll recite the Holy Qur’an in Arabic, different verses or chapters that are meaningful for the patient surrounding their illness, or sometimes stories.

Common narratives like the story of Job—or in Arabic, Ayyub—who became ill and dealt with his illness for many, many years. How does he cope with it? Muslim patients can relate to stories like that for inspiration.

A patient might show despair. “I think that I got this illness because God hates me and I’m being punished.” Is that really true? I ask the patient, “What makes you think that, and what are other possibilities?” And sometimes they come up with a conclusion on their own, like, “Maybe this is just a trial for me because God loves me, and He tries those who He loves.”

You mentioned telling the story of Job/Ayyub as a parallel. Are there other stories that you tell to patients?

Once the patient asks for prayer, one of the prayers I use is about when the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, became ill. The angel Gabriel asked him, “Are you OK? How are you feeling?” He said, “I’m sick.”

And so Gabriel did an incantation upon him, saying, “In the name of Allah, I say this prayer, from everything that bothers you, from everything that may have afflicted you…” 

It’s just a beautiful prayer, from an angel, and we’re left with a tradition. Just showing the human aspect of who the Prophet was. He did become ill. He did become sad. He did become anxious, at times. And what did he do and how did he get through it? 

I draw those parallels and remind Muslim patients that they can be helpful.

Where in the M Health Fairview healthcare system are you based?

I am working at the University of Minnesota Medical Center and also Bethesda Hospital. Because Bethesda is a COVID hospital, I do my patient visits through tele-chaplaincy so we can minimize infection exposure. When I do go into Bethesda, I go in if the patient is about to expire.

That’s when I provide Quranic recitation and prayers to the patient. Sometimes family members are present in the room and we’re all dressed in full PPE, praying together before the patient passes away.

There’s a chapter in the Qur’an that Muslims sometimes recite during the time of death to help ease the passage. It’s chapter 36, called Ya-Sin. That’s something I can recite. It usually takes about 10 minutes. 

I try to recite chapters that patients are familiar with. Sometimes they’re around healing, if there’s a hope that the patient will come through. I try to give hope to both family members and the patients in Allah, in God, to not despair in these moments. 

What made you decide to volunteer to serve COVID-19 patients at Bethesda?

I believe that I was exposed to COVID-19 in March. I was sick for two weeks and lost my voice. I didn’t have shortness of breath, but I had everything else. It was a really hard time for me.

After my recovery, I wanted to do something about it. As chaplains, we can volunteer for what we call “end of life on-call.” And I found out there’s end of life on-call for COVID-19 patients. I put my name on the roster. There’s probably about 12 to 15 of us chaplains across all faiths through the healthcare system that have volunteered to do this.

How many end-of-life patients with COVID-19 have you’ve assisted since the pandemic began?

Probably about four or five. One particular case was a gentleman in his 50s. I’m called into the room to do prayer. And I escorted two of his family members who were allowed to visit from the emergency department up to the unit. 

One of the things they said was, “This person does not have any underlying conditions. It’s unexpected. It’s a shock to us that he’s going to pass away.”

For us as chaplains, we really have to find a grounding. We have to create space for the patients and their families for their expression of grief and shock and coping. So we went up to the room and said prayers for the patient.

It’s hard stuff to deal with and it’s hard to see that. But giving them something to hold onto, whether it be the Qur’an, words of comfort or support, or just even listening, just lending them our ear and our hearts to observe that—it’s important. We need to let them release their anxieties, tensions and grief.

I’m told you wear an unusual type of PPE.

In the Islamic faith tradition, I believe that it’s required for men to keep a beard. It was the way of the prophets who came before us, like Abraham, Moses, Isaac, Jesus, David and Muhammad, peace be upon them all. They all had beards. 

So I also wear a beard, and due to that I cannot be formally fitted for an N-95 mask. I wear a “powered air purifying respirator,” which is sort of like a mask that fits around the entire head. There’s a breathing device that connects to the back of the PAPR through a hose. 

How long do you intend to work as a chaplain?

I really hope for the rest of my life. It’s something I enjoy so much. I’m a very non-anxious kind of guy. So coming into situations that are traumatic and sad, I feel that I’m able to bring a calm and a peace into the room for patients and families. 

If I’m at peace myself, I think that I can help others truly find that.

Joey Peters

Joey Peters is a reporter for Sahan Journal. His work has appeared in Reuters, Public Radio International, Columbia Journalism Review, KFAI Radio, the Pioneer Press, City Pages, MinnPost and more. He previously...