Chaplain VS Pandemic

I started my first unit of chaplaincy in January 2020. The pandemic had already hit in other parts of the world, but we were still mostly naïve enough to think that such a thing could never hit our shores. By March 2020, the country was in quarantine and my first unit of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) was being done remotely. So, I finished that first unit doing ministry with patients and families over the phone. It was a daunting challenge, interrupted by the occasional moment when the patient opens up to you, and suddenly, every awkward phone call before this was worth it. These are the moments chaplains live for.

I am a people person. I am fueled by people. This remote work on the phone did not feel life giving, in fact, it felt more life sucking.  But still I persisted and grew as a chaplain.

As I felt God’s call to apply to the chaplain residency program, I was very hesitant, wondering, would chaplains be allowed in the hospital with patients, or work remotely?

As it turns out chaplains are considered essential personnel in the hospital. I would come to find this statement has never been truer than during this pandemic.

In the hospital’s main lobby and hallways, it is quiet, a ghost town. The general rule is there are no volunteers and no visitors. (the exception is for the one visitor patients are allowed while they are in surgery and the two visitors allowed at end of life.) Up on the floors it is often chaos. The beds are full, staff is stretched thin, and patients are struggling. This pandemic creates more problems than just the threat of the virus.

Chaplains are in high demand. We are busy non-stop with patients who are struggling with their own personal crisis – sickness, fear, and worry, compounded by isolation. Isolation can impede the physical healing process as it affects the patient’s emotional and spiritual wellbeing. That is where chaplains come in.

As the generalist chaplain, several of my floors have been converted to COVID units. These patients are further isolated due to the fear of spreading the virus. They are confined to their rooms. Nurses go in only at regularly scheduled times to give meds, meals, and do patient care. The rest of the time, they are alone in the room.

As a chaplain I am not allowed to go in the COVID-19 rooms. Yet, this population is at the highest risk for depression, loneliness, and anxiety and in the most need of emotional and spiritual support.

Now in my second unit of CPE for this residency, I have made it my goal to try to better serve this population. I cannot do it in the traditional manner, face to face, but I can connect with them by phone. (I am praising God for my experience over the phone in my first unit.)

I am intentional about carving time out of my week to dedicate to the COVID floors. I go up there and talk to the nurses, asking about patients who might need a call, knowing full well I will call each one. This is really my time to build relationships with the nurses and to give them opportunity to share their own struggles. Their job is hard. They are getting sick or fear getting sick, yet they soldier on, because this is who they are; nurses take care of others. They love their patients; I know this because I sit at the nurse’s station while calling patients and I see the love in action. This inspires me even more to also soldier on.

 Calling into the rooms I am right outside of, I let the patient know I am here and that I care. They always want to talk. I hear fear, loneliness, depression. I listen, encouraging them to name their feelings and explore their struggle as well as their hope. And we pray.  

Working towards my goal to better serve these patients, reaching out to the family members is becoming a new addition to my chaplain routine.  Recently, the nurse manager on one of my floors asked me to check on a family member of an older man who was struggling with COVID and in his last days. His daughter had flown in from across the Country to be with him. She sat vigil even though her father was unresponsive. I could not enter the room, so the daughter and I met in the day room to talk and to pray. She was a Christian and most concerned with her dad’s eternal home. She wanted to know that he would be in heaven. I shared with her that often patients can hear, even if they are unable to respond. I encouraged her to talk to, and pray for her dad, and to trust God to take it from there. We prayed together and she left with fresh encouragement to make the most of the time she has alone with her dad. These are moments chaplains live for. This encourages me to Soldier on.

One of my patients told me the other day, “Every time you think you are in the wrong place, just look at your feet, and remember you are right where you are supposed to be.”

As I look back, remembering my hesitancy to even apply to this chaplain resident program just six-months ago (has it been six months already?!?), I cannot help but to look down at my feet. I realize God has me right where he wants me, for just this time, just this place, to meet people where they and to be God’s conduit, even in the middle of a pandemic.

Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, I hope this encourages you to look at your feet. I hope it reminds you that you are right where you are supposed to be. And I hope it encourages you to soldier on, trusting God to take it from here.

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