'We were here' — health care chaplains reflect on COVID-19 ministry
WASHINGTON (CNS) — As the coronavirus pandemic swept the nation this past year, hospital chaplains — already accustomed to helping people cope with sickness and death — found their ministries took on added significance.
In city and rural hospitals, chaplains brought comfort to the sick and were present with the dying. They connected family members to loved ones by phones or iPads and were with families when doctors told them good news and bad.
They worked alongside nurses and provided listening ears for them when the strain of the relentless disease, overcrowded intensive care units and ventilator shortages became too much to bear.
Since the first COVID-19 deaths in the United States last February to the recent milestone of over 500,000 deaths this Feb. 22, chaplains have seen the disease's unrelenting grip as they continued their usual work and then some.
Realizing their ministry was all the more valuable, they worked harder, collaborated more, found ways to reach the sick who might not even hear them or communicate to families not able to be with their loved ones.
They also had to be sure they were grounded for the unknowns they might face each day.
During the year, chaplains also had to change their usual ways of working to adapt to safety protocols. Instead of holding patients' hands or hugging them as they once did, at first they were often only able to talk using an iPad outside the patient's room.
Months later, they had more access but often from a 6-foot distance and behind layers of personal protective equipment. Sometimes, if gloved, they could hold a patient's hand, but with family members, if they met in person, there was no shaking hands and definitely no hugging.
When the first COVID-19 patient died at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Sandra Michocki, a chaplain there, said she found herself placing her hands on the window of the patient's room.
"Instinctually, the chaplain is at the bedside when a patient is dying," she said. "At that moment I felt so hopeless, and it occurred to me we were on the brink of something that was so unprecedented, we were going to have to rethink every practice that we had."
"We found a different way to chaplain," said Verna Simpkins, a part-time chaplain at Mercy Hospital in Rockville Centre, New York, and a self-described hugger. Looking back over the year, she said it was intense, but she also thinks people "realized how valuable the chaplain is; we are so needed. In times of trauma and adversity, people are counting on us."
The Rev. Chance Beeler, a minister with the United Church of Christ, who is the manager of pastoral and spiritual care for SSM Health St. Joseph Hospital in St. Charles, Missouri, said he and his colleagues have been at this "as if it's a marathon" and now, the first anniversary of the pandemic gives them pause.
"When we work with emergencies, typically they last maybe a couple of hours or a couple of days, but a year is really different," he said.
Similarly, Sister Amy Golm, chaplain at Agnesian HealthCare in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, said: "It's been a year," emphasizing each word. "Sometimes it seems like it's been two or three years," added the Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
None of the group of chaplains who spoke to Catholic News Service in late February indicated their work would go back to normal when the pandemic is eventually over.
Simpkins, a grandmother, who dealt with her own challenges this year after briefly suffering with COVID-19 and coping with her husband's death this past summer, said health chaplaincy "will be different now because of what we've been through."
Now, chaplains are equipped to do telechaplaincy and they also are prepared to keep up an almost unrelenting pace, which Simpkins said will still be needed because coming out of pandemic, many people will still be depressed and anxious and "we'll be needed just as much, if not more."
Throughout the year, chaplains provided spiritual support and encouragement for patients and their families of all faith backgrounds or none. Some had COVID-19 themselves early on and got right back to work after they recovered, others had parents die of complications from the virus and some witnessed the deaths of beloved co-workers.
Like everyone, they also dealt with isolation from friends and extended family members. But they also had their own worries about bringing home the virus germs. Many worked longer hours and had increased duties as other staff members were furloughed and volunteers were told not to come.
St. Agnes Hospital in Fond du Lac, where Sister Golm oversees pastoral care, had the first COVID-19 death in the state March 19. And just recently, the woman religious was in the room with a family when the doctor told them their mother's life support was going to be removed. She remained with the family when the nurse held a phone up and the husband told his wife goodbye.
"In their darkest hour, I was sitting with them," she said. The image of this family stays with her because they were not just grief-stricken but also consumed with guilt, and sure their mother had become infected at a family gathering.
Gavan Meehan, a chaplain at the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey, similarly felt the intensity of the past year but said there is "definitely a sea change" now for hospital staff members with decreased cases, fewer COVID-19 deaths and hope from the vaccine rollout.
He views the shift from last spring and summer to recent months as "going from war footing to peacetime."
The pandemic hit the New Jersey area hard at the onset and Meehan, a former attorney and member of St. Peter's Parish in New Brunswick, switched from his role as the hospital's oncology chaplain to devoting his time to the hospital's new COVID-19 floor.
After recovering from the virus himself, he started coming in early to offer extra support to the nurses leaving their night shifts, even just by singing Beatles' songs to them at their station, prior to the awareness of dangers of aerosol droplets.
He said chaplains are trained to deal with death, but for the nurses, this was different, especially since so many people died without their family members being with them and often only with nurses at their side.
Chaplains put a strong emphasis on being available for the medical staff. During the year, Sister Golm said some nearby hospitals sent their chaplains home, but her pastoral care team was committed to staying — even though telechaplaincy work could potentially be done from home.
"We belong here alongside our people," her colleagues said, wanting to be available for hospital workers who might meet up with them in a hallway or stop at their office.
In her sixth year of chaplaincy, after doing hospice care and campus ministry before that, Sister Golm said this is "good and holy work."
Michocki similarly called it sacred work and said it is a privilege to do it. After this past year, she feels chaplains are seen more as a key part of the hospital team. "We brought our spirituality to the table," she said.
Rev. Beeler, who is writing a doctoral dissertation on the role of chaplains during the pandemic, remarked that he often said: "I know why I'm here," during the year, further convinced of his calling as the pandemic continued.
He said he and his colleagues have moved from a "what's next, what's next, what's next?" mode to now looking at how to continue to offer a calm presence "even when we're not in the midst of a pandemic."
He thinks chaplains honed their skills during the past year, and he hopes that momentum will continue.
After witnessing so much loss this past year, Meehan said he is amazed now at his hopefulness and resilience which he attributes to "just pure grace as far as I'm concerned" adding that he now has "an even stronger sense of vocation and greater humility."
Many of the chaplains echoed the same sentiment, saying there was a grace in accompanying so many in this crisis however they could.
"It was so humbling to hold a patient's hand when they were dying," said Michocki, noting that often the family members were on the phone, the nurse was on the other side of the bed and the doctor stood at the foot of the bed.
"You become part of their story and they become part of your story," she has told hospital colleagues of this intersection with chaplains, hospital staffs, patients and their families.
"You will never forget them," she said, "and they will never forget that we were here."
By Carol Zimmermann, Catholic News Service
Chaz Muth contributed to this report