Chaplaincy in a COVID 19 World
April 7, 2020 / By Rev. Cathy Hall Stengel
- “I just pray,” responded an RN when asked how she got through the code and death of a young man.
- “I imagine it’s my brother because it might be next week,” said a provider caring for a man in his 50s.
- “He’s my daddy; I know he’s sick, but he’s the only daddy I will ever have,” pleaded the daughter of a patient.
- “Can we check at security to make sure the family gets in since they don’t speak English?”
- “I don’t want them turned away because someone can’t understand them,” said the attending physician at the death of a patient.
- “I know she’s sick; can we just see her, please? asked the children and grandchildren of a patient when a facetime visit was offered.
These are some of the things you might hear in the halls of the hospital, from the ICU nurses, the attending physicians, and the family members of the patients. Thank yous come more frequently – for the help, for the snacks, the pizza… thank you for the cheerleading and the thanks coming from far and wide. When the hospital made the decision to close the doors to visitors (except for birth, death, and NICU) and non-essential staff and visitors, the tone of the hospital changed. In some ways it has felt eerily quiet, but in other ways it has felt blanketed in grace, wrapped by the love and power of the Holy Spirit (in my Christian faith). There’s a tenderness and vulnerability in the hallways, in the ER (which is usually tough as nails), in the COVID and non-COVID units. When a staff member finds themselves in tears, their team members are right there with encouragement. There continues to be laughter – it is the sound of life.
I sat outside a room at the computer station, an RN sitting at the computer beside me. She had watched me use FaceTime to help a family see their loved one in the ICU room, on a ventilator. Grandchildren called out “Hi Grammy!” in their joyful voices; children whispered, “oh mom” and then there was love and prayer. All of that happened without taking one step into the room. The RN tearfully thanked me. I was humbled – “you are the lifesavers here; you are the ones who are trying to get this grandma home to those children, not me.” She looked me in the face – eyes meeting over masks, and said, “I could NEVER do what you are doing; I would be crying all day; we have to do this together.” So we sit together, each bringing our own gifts to the ICU and hospital village, trying to get as many patients safely home.
My role as a chaplain has changed dramatically in the past two weeks. The residents in our group were initially asked to work from home, calling family members and providing spiritual care. These were largely non-COVID-19 patients and families.
A week ago – things changed again and I and another resident were asked if we would be willing to come back to the hospital to care for COVID-19 positive patients and their families. I serve in a COVID ICU and a COVID step down unit. I begin by connecting with families by phone, offering whatever support might be needed and possible. How do you bring a family into the room or to the window of an ICU room when they aren’t allowed in the building? Everyone wants to see and be with their sick friend or family member. Even with patients who are on ventilators and sedated we can connect with family by skype or FaceTime, Facebook Messenger or other video platforms. Sometimes that iPad goes right into the room and it’s held by the patient’s face. Families pray and sing; families look at their family members with eyes so tender they might as well be touching the cheek of the one they love.
One of the most exciting things technology has offered (twice for me) is the opportunity to call a family on FaceTime just after their family member has been taken off the ventilator – and they talk and smile and do a lot of crying.
We are all doing a new thing – and we are all stretched to use new skills, new mediums – new ways of expressing care. For all of us – there is life in the living and caring through this. I am more tired than I’ve ever been, and I am more alive each day.