Chaplaincy During COVID

Sister Barbara Kane, OP
Dominican Sisters of Peace
New Haven, CT USA

The week that the Corona Virus became real in New Haven, CT was the week I started CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). Each day as more patients arrived with this strange new virus, the hospital sent out a new directive – no visitors… no volunteers… masks at all times… no chaplain visits … and on and on. Staff chaplains were challenged each day to find ways to connect with patients and with the staff on the units without actually being present.

I started ‘visiting’ patients over the telephone. It was a challenge to connect with patients when I couldn’t see if a nurse or doctor was with them or if they were sleeping or too ill to talk. If they were able to talk, I couldn’t see their facial expressions or body language to determine their reactions. Often, with only trust in the Spirit to guide me, I would forge ahead and often, there were amazingly deep and spiritual conversations. I also spent time on the phone to family members who were distraught at not being with their loved ones during this difficult time.

Some of the staff chaplains volunteered to visit COVID units – not to visit the patients in their rooms but to check in with staff who were experiencing the trauma of dying patients in a world where healing them was the norm. Needless to say, the chaplains experienced this trauma as well. At the height of the pandemic, the hospital system had over 450 COVID patients many of them in critical condition.

I remember my first visit to a COVID unit. An elderly man had died and his daughter requested that a chaplain provide a blessing. My clinical coach, a staff chaplain who mentors a CPE intern, asked me to join her for this visit. We entered the unit and took appropriate PPE. We told the nurse that we couldn’t go into the room and she set us up with a video link. In all the chaos and noise, we prayed for this man who had died. His nurse, a young woman with only a year and a half’s experience, provided the calm and support we needed to minister to him. When we talked to her later, we learned that she and many of her peers were struggling with the pain and stress of losing so many patients and the fear of contracting the virus themselves. They mourned each time they held the hand of a dying patient because no family could be here to do it.

Gradually, as the hospital and state got the virus under control, it was possible to visit patients in person. These visits were so important because many of our patients were lonely, missing their spouses, children or grandchildren who could not visit. My heart went out to family members who could not be with their loved ones especially when they were dying. It was painful for all of us.
Yet, I will remember most the dedication of the pastoral and medical staffs who provided service and care at a risk of their own safety and did this with love and compassion. I hope that the coming flu season will not result in a similar situation for our hospitals. It’s more important than ever for people to protect themselves and others by wearing masks, social distancing and washing their hands. We have a responsibility to protect our frontline medical workers just as they provide so much for us.

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