I began these writings on Easter Sunday 2020. At that time, there was much uncertainty and fear surrounding the Coronavirus and no one knew what to expect during a pandemic. It quickly became apparent that one of the truths of a worldwide pandemic is everyone will have a unique experience, their own personal story of the pandemic. The reflections that follow draw upon those experiences and seek to produce a picture of life, challenge and hope at the bedside as a hospital chaplain in a large hospital.
Initially, the reflections seemed to be a way of centering and purging thoughts and emotions. As time went by, I began to realize the importance of these writings on a personal level. As I shared them at both a hospital and church level, the feedback I received was very positive, as people said they were beneficial and meaningful. I hope that these reflections of a chaplain during the 2020-2021 pandemic serve as a helpful and healing way of processing your own experience of the pandemic.
I work as a chaplain at a large 300+ bed hospital in Columbus, Ohio. My primary assignment is the Emergency Department where we average around 2500 traumas and between 80,000-90, 000 patient visits a year. In this environment you never know what the next moment might look like, as the hospital staff never knows the next need that might enter the door. It is part of the job. It is part of the unique experience of the emergency department.
However, the coronavirus is different. As I write these words 110,005 people around the world have died as a result of this virus. I am sure when I am finished with these words the number will be higher. In the United States 20,580 people have died and in my own state, 247 people have lost their lives. I have personally been with families that have lost a loved one to the disease.
The coronavirus changed things in terrifying ways, yet the subsequent human response has been nothing less than inspiring. Let me explain. As hospital employees, we never know what may come in next into an emergency department, but we also hold a quiet confidence. All staff members have trained extensively, and we trust our training. Over time we learn to trust your teammates and what each person brings to the team.
For a time, the coronavirus took this confidence away and brought a level of fear to the medical and support staff. As horrendous the car accident can be, we did not feel that we might be putting ourselves and the ones we love at risk.
I remember Friday, March 27 very well. It was the first day we had a COVID+ patient in the hospital. In fact, before the shift ended, we had three COVID+ patients in the hospital. At one point the emergency department had ten suspected patients. As a hospital we had prepared six rooms in the emergency department for CODID+ patients and we had thirty-two beds in the main hospital staffed and ready to receive those patients.
Obviously at this moment we felt behind the curve, but the courage and resolve of the team was incredible. Staff who were working directly in patient rooms were able to gown appropriately. Observing nurses, PCAs (Patient Care Assistants), respiratory therapists, pharmacists and doctors enter these rooms again and again is something I will never forget. Watching the team perform CPR on a suspected COVID+ patient, with all the potential threats involved to themselves and to those they love has given me a new perspective on sacrificial love. The sacrificial love revealed to the world through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
On this Friday afternoon, the hospital support staff including unit coordinators, registration, social workers, transportation, dietitian, maintenance, house cleaning and chaplains had not yet been given PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). There simply was not enough PPE to go around. Everyone knew the risk could be literally in the air as patient after patient was brought by EMS. No matter how prepared any ER is, it is impossible to fully isolate a patient while wheeling them through the emergency department to their equipped room where the gowned team awaits their arrival.
And yet everyone stayed, doing their jobs and attempting to do their part. When I returned to work the next Monday the resilient and resourceful upper-management team had acted, and we had nearly fifteen rooms in the emergency department that had been modified by brave construction workers for COVID+ patients. Over the course of the weekend our hospital capacity had increased to forty-eight rooms prepared to receive COVID+ patients.
This expansion capacity has continued and when I left work on Thursday, April 9, we had thirty emergency department beds ready and ninety-six floor beds. For the past week we have had between twelve to twenty COVID+ patients admitted to the hospital. Another thirty to forty patients were admitted and waiting for test results leaving us with thirty to forty beds available. The hospital administration is always trying to stay ahead of the curve and plans are in place to expand to 128 rooms assigned for COVID+ patients if needed.
What is the role of the chaplain during this pandemic and how has it changed from pre-pandemic days? The chaplain’s role can be summarized in three ways: Prayer, Presence and Representatives of Hope.
I am very fortunate to work in a hospital system that allows an overhead prayer. Each Monday morning, I have prayed this prayer.
To everything there is a Season… (Ecclesiastes 3:1a)
Oh, good and gracious God, Our Heavenly Father.
So much of life has changed for each of us in the recent past and today we face challenges that we could not have imagined.
Be with us dear God. Be with us in our frustrations and fears.
Be with us whenever we might feel overwhelmed and fatigued.
Be with us each day as we do the best, we possibly can for those we serve and for each other. Be with us in our weeping and in our resiliency.
Bless those Heavenly Father that we love and carry with us in our minds and in our hearts. Give us strength and courage. Fill us with compassion and give us the wisdom to know when it is time to be still and allow You to refresh our souls so we can continue to face the challenges before us rooted in Your truth and hope.
For there is a time for every season. A time to weep and a time to laugh. Lead us, Oh God, to the time of laughter once again.
In Your Holy name we pray. Amen.
As a spiritual care department, we attempt to provide overhead prayer as often as possible. We have been asked many times to pray with individual staff or teams. The overhead prayer can reach the most people and staff reaction has been plentiful and positive. One chaplain took it upon herself to sanitize and handout to staff over a hundred tokens with either a dove on one side and the word “peace” on the reverse or an angel on one side and the word “faith” on the opposite side. Many staff members seemed to draw great strength from these tokens, as having something tangible to simply hold onto is centering for them in the midst of uncertainty. An amazing Nigerian priest and hospital chaplain received special permission from the bishop to gown and enter the room of COVID+ Catholic patients to administer the sacraments including confession, communion and Anointing of the Sick.
Presence is a huge part of the ministry of a chaplain; being a compassionate presence who can keep your head when frequently the people around you cannot, is the beginning point of every encounter with patients and families. Holding a patient’s hand, extending a kind touch, a caring smile, an empathetic ear, or a knowing and warm look in the eye are invaluable tools a chaplain uses every day. However, these tools are very limited when patients are in isolation and families are unable to enter the hospital and visit their loved one.
Isolation presents a new and difficult challenge and reminds us how true it is that God made us to be in relationship. Being in relationship with other people and with God is what it means to be fully human.
Ministering in these situations is done primarily through phone and with families. On occasion a chaplain may be able to talk on the phone with a patient, but most patients are too sick and exhausted to talk in this way. There are times when families have requested a prayer for a loved one and the chaplain simply stands outside the room and prays. Prayer is a very powerful gift God has given us and not even a virus, not even a pandemic, can take that away!
Further, the chaplains try and track potential COVID patients that have tested negative and moved to another part of the hospital. Families are still not allowed to visit, and the chaplain visit is usually most welcomed by the patient as they begin to process and emerge from their isolation. Human contact and an empathetic ear can be very healing. Additionally, the presence of the chaplain continues in all areas of the hospital that continue to function in non-COVID ways; heart attacks, strokes, car accidents, violence, palliative care, general sickness, deaths and births continue, and the chaplain seeks to meet these needs as well.
Finally, the chaplain is a representative of hope. At no time in my ministry has this been truer. Simply walking through the hospital can take hours and be exhausting as we are stopped for small talk and not so small talk. You can sense and feel people drawing energy and hope out of you. It’s hard to explain, yet very, very real.
Today is Easter and it feels very strange not to be in church. Yet today is still Easter! A day where we celebrate the resurrection of Christ. A day where we ponder the mystery of the empty tomb and the victory of Resurrection Hope!
Tomorrow at 7am, I will be back at the hospital and I have no idea what will await me. But what I do know, rooted in truth and grace, is that an amazing team throughout the hospital embodying sacrificial love will await me. I do know that God’s power in prayer and presence awaits me. And I do know the truth of hope, for hope is not rooted in a human feeling but rather is known in a Risen Savior! Amen.