The ministry of a hospital chaplain amid a pandemic

Hospital chaplaincy has been around a long time. I am one of many CPPS Sisters who have been involved in this ministry; they can share the blessings that come from this ministry as well as some of the misunderstandings. Chaplains are more than those folks you call when someone is dying or in need of prayer. Ministry to patients begins within the first 24 hours of admitting — well, ideally.

The ministry of chaplaincy is assessing the patient’s spiritual health, perhaps walking through life’s hurts and joys; family relationships, discussing end-of-life care, fears, joys, what gives a patient peace, etc. We offer prayer and blessings, stand with a grieving family member, companion a caregiver who is stressed, provide a quiet presence when needed. Our ministry is one title with many ways of being … not unlike lots of other ministries.

Once … just not long ago … working as a hospital chaplain had its usual signs. NPO meant “nothing by mouth,” so no Eucharist for the patient that day. A yellow cart outside the room indicated that one needed to “gown up” and “mask up” before entering. Sometimes one needed to put on shoe coverings and a nifty little hat as well.

Once … just not long ago … there was no pandemic …

Now our role has shifted. We continue to provide a presence to our caregivers who, in their caring, are tired and often stretched beyond limits, yet continue to offer their skills.

We are present to patients who cannot have visitors. Families are not permitted to visit. Though chaplains can go into non-COVID patient rooms, we wear a mask and face shield. This can feel less personal. Prayer with touch is done with gloved hands.

Tele-Spiritual Health is what we try to do with patients who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or who are awaiting COVID test results. We stand at the door and offer prayer. If the patient is alert, conversation is from the door. We can use FaceTime or Skype to have family members “visit.” The personal is lacking. Yet, this is what a pandemic does.

Family members struggle when they know their loved one will die from COVID and those family members cannot be at the bedside. The nursing staff does a great job sitting bedside, so no one dies alone. Chaplains continue to provide a presence to family — even over the phone.

The chaplains who work with me share their tiredness and their concern about overextended staff members. They share their struggle to be present to patients and talk of fear for their own health.

As a Sister of the Precious Blood, I take to prayer the struggle to be a reconciling presence in the midst of this pandemic…

Once … not long ago …

Story and photo by Sister Terry Maher

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