Whether she’s wearing her nurse’s scrubs or her Salvation Army uniform, the heart behind Suja Chandrasekaran’s service is the same.
“Being The Salvation Army, we always try to help others,” she says. “As a nurse, my faith motivates me to care more, to do my job with compassion.”
That has been especially true for the past two years, as the world has grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, and nurses such as Suja have been on the front lines.
Now an IV nurse at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital in Hamilton, Bermuda, Suja’s journey began a world away from the island nation, in southern India. Born into a Salvationist family in a village in the state of Tamil Nadu, Suja says The Salvation Army has played an important role in every aspectof her life.
“I grew up in the Salvation Army church and I did my nursing studies at the Catherine Booth Hospital (CBH) in Nagercoil,” she shares. “My uncle was a Salvation Army officer and I married the son of officers, so I have a Salvation Army background from birth until now.”
While only six percent of the population of Tamil Nadu is Christian, in the district of Kanyakumari, where the CBH is located, nearly half the population is Christian and many are Salvationists.
The Army has occupied a unique place in southeast India since operations commenced in 1892. The CBH was established the following year and a nursing school was added in 1938, making a massive impact on generations of people in the area and around the world.
“Without the Salvation Army ministry, we would never have had any education because the southern part of India was considered the most low class,” Suja explains. “Thanks to the Army, people like me could get educated, and the CBH is like a root that so many of us have grown from, with branches worldwide.”
Growing up, Suja did not plan on becoming a nurse. “My mom was a teacher, so when I graduated from high school, I wanted to go into teaching,” she explains. “But my dad saw something in me. He said, ‘You have to become a nurse because you have the quality and the compassion to take care of the patients.’ ”
Though hesitant at first, Suja followed her father’s suggestion and credits the CBH for teaching her how to care for others—practically and emotionally.
“Studying in a Salvation Army institution motivated me to do God’s work in a different way,” she says.
After finishing nursing school in 1990, Suja worked in India and Saudi Arabia before a friend and fellow graduate of the CBH convinced her to make the move to Bermuda. Suja, her husband, Chandrasekaran Asirvatham, and daughter, Anugraha, immigrated in 2000.
It didn’t take them long to connect with The Salvation Army.
“When I came to Bermuda, I was working with elderly people in continuing care,” Suja shares. “And my first week there, the band came to play for them and go around the ward. When I heard the music, I was fascinated—Oh, here also they are Salvation Army!”
Suja approached a church member, Lynn Cann, and told her she was a Salvationist, and the rest is history. “She took me to the church and introduced me to everybody,” says Suja, who attends Hamilton’s North Street Citadel with her family. “The people in Bermuda are caring and loving, especially in The Salvation Army. They are very supportive of us being here.”
Last fall, the corps offered Suja and her fellow nurses at the hospital much-needed practical support when Bermuda faced a surge in COVID-19 cases. For three weeks, when the wave was at its peak, North Street Citadel provided a total of 115 lunch and dinner meals on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Each meal came with a devotional card, written by members of the corps, to encourage the health-care workers during that stressful time.
“It’s a small hospital, so it was overwhelmed and overflowing with COVID patients, as well as the regular patients, and there was a shortage of nurses because so many people were exposed to COVID,” says Suja. “It helped the nurses and health-care workers a lot, knowing that there’s somebody out in the community thinking of them. The Army supported us physically, mentally and emotionally.”
“Thank You, Nurse”
It has been two years since COVID-19 came to Bermuda. Suja remembers being called upon to treat the first confirmed case at the hospital.
“I spent 45 minutes in a closed room with him, giving a blood transfusion,” she says. “The next day, his test result came back positive and he died a few months later.”
Despite this significant exposure, Suja did not get COVID. “I believe God alone protected me.”
Since then, Suja has treated many more COVID patients. As an IV nurse, she may be called to any department at the hospital, including the ICU and the COVID ward. Suja says treating patients who are dying of COVID can be emotionally draining, but it is also an opportunity to share God’s love and put her faith into action.
“When you go into a COVID patient’s room, they cannot see your face or anything—only the eyes because we are in PPE [personal protective equipment],” she says. “They are alone in the room because their family cannot come. And at the last minute, they will grab your hands and hold you tight. So I tell them not to worry. Just leave it upon God and he will take care of everything. And they will say, ‘Thank you, nurse; pray for me.’
“The next day, you won’t see them anymore, but in those few seconds, you can make them feel secure and ask God to bring them comfort.”
Even with long and often gruelling shifts at the hospital—Suja's husband is a radiographer at King Edward—the family is actively involved at the church, and Suja is a member of the corps council. While their older daughter is now practising medicine in Scotland, their younger daughter, Anjelina, participates in many ministries at the church, including band, choir and dance, and was enrolled as a junior soldier by General André Cox at Bermuda’s divisional congress in 2015.
“Sister Suja is a committed Salvationist with a deep sense of humility,” says Captain Dwayne Barnes, corps officer at North Street Citadel. “Whenever Suja is in our presence, she brings a sense of joy and relaxation.”
“That same spirit of joy leads to her willingness to help the church whenever needed,” adds Captain Kendacy Barnes, corps officer at North Street Citadel. “She is always willing to help, and she encourages her family and friends to do the same.”
Suja and Chandrasekaran are used to providing care for others, but the family found themselves on the receiving side in 2018 when their doctor found a lump in Anjelina’s throat.
“She was only 13 years old and the doctor said she probably had cancer,” Suja says. “The whole church family was praying.”
The hospital scheduled Anjelina to go in for a biopsy twice, but both times the procedure was delayed due to unrelated circumstances. Before the biopsy could take place, a blood test revealed that she did not have cancer, but a viral infection. It was a pivotal moment in Suja’s faith journey.
“I believe that was a miracle—of healing and delaying the process so she didn’t have to have the biopsy, which could have left a scar,” says Suja. “I thank God from the bottom of my heart.”
As a nurse on the front lines of the pandemic, Suja knows she is taking a risk every time she arrives for a shift at the hospital—some of her nursing colleagues have died after contracting COVID-19.
“It’s not an easy thing to digest if you think of this situation and you will get worried,” she says. “So we have to put everything upon the Creator—that is the only thing that will take us all the way.
“I think these are my foundations—starting with Sunday school and growing up in my family,” Suja continues. “I am so proud that my parents brought us up in the church, in The Salvation Army, and that my children were as well.”
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