As a hospice chaplain, Jennifer Bradshaw is accustomed to meeting with patients and their families during their most difficult hours. These days, such meetings are more challenging than they have ever been. With nursing homes and hospitals closed to most visitors due to COVID-19 precautions, area chaplains have had to adjust the way they serve those in need.
These days, such meetings are more challenging than they have ever been. With nursing homes and hospitals closed to most visitors due to COVID-19 precautions, area chaplains have had to adjust the way they serve those in need. Sitting at a patient’s bedside, holding a hand, praying together — in a majority of cases, these are just not possible.
“Pre-COVID-19, I would do a lot of visits both in homes and in nursing homes. I would visit people quite regularly — once a week or every other week,” said Bradshaw, a chaplain specialist with Rainbow Hospice. “I’m no longer able to visit people in nursing homes as frequently as I did.”
Supporting patients’ family members
Instead, Bradshaw has seen her focus shift, though her work of helping people find peace and meaning amid serious illness has not.
“Instead of me visiting a patient and calling the family afterward and saying, ‘Today I visited with your mom,’’’ my focus is now on the family members and being able to help them cope with whatever is going on,” Bradshaw said. “It’s been a lot of (them saying), ‘How do I cope with not being able to see my mom?’”
The same is true for the Rev. Anish Skariya, a chaplain with Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge and a Syrian Orthodox priest. The Rev. Anish Skariya is a chaplain at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. Interaction between hospital chaplains and patients has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the chaplains say.
“The biggest change I’ve seen is less contact and interactions we have with patients,” he said. “A lot of our ministry now is toward families.” With hospitals and nursing facilities largely closed to visitors, the sick and their loved ones are feeling the stress, chaplains say.
“If we think about this time of isolation, it’s very hard to have your loved one in the hospital and you can’t be there in the way you want to be,” said Lindsey Bona, chaplain and vice president of mission and spiritual care at Advocate Lutheran General.
Educating patients to be comfortable with video chat
The restrictions are also challenging for the chaplains. With personal protective equipment in short supply and concerns about the spread of COVID-19, hospital and nursing home staff are hesitant to send chaplains into patient rooms, Skariya said.
It’s meant more conversations on the phone and more conversations with the patients’ families, he said.
“The goal of chaplaincy is active listening — that stays the same,” Bona said. “The difference is the actual physical presence.”
Video meetings with patients can occur as well, the chaplains say. For Bradshaw, many of her patients have declined this option, but she calls it “a great tool” to make connections if she cannot be there in person. “I feel that people just need more education to know it can be something that’s a real blessing to them,” she said.
But Bradshaw acknowledges that providing spiritual care is more difficult when she cannot be in the room with a patient or family member and hold their hand or read the emotion in their eyes. “We are trying to be creative in the best way we can to still connect people with their faith so they can have meaning with their end of life,” she said.
Man requested personal visit: ‘I’m afraid to die’
Sometimes, though, being in a patient’s room is necessary, as it was with one man, Bradshaw said.
“He said, ‘I’m afraid to die.’ He was of the Lutheran faith and he wanted communion and someone to pray with him and bless him with oil,” she said. “I spent about 15 minutes talking with the administrator outside the facility, trying to argue that he was afraid to die and he needed me to come in and bless him and spent some time with him.”
Finally, Bradshaw was allowed inside.
“He said it was the best communion he’s ever had,” she shared. “I don’t know if he was just being kind, but he said it was the first time he ever felt peace and he wasn’t afraid of death. Those things stick with me. I don’t want people to be afraid.”
Within the Amita Health system, which includes Resurrection Medical Center on Chicago’s Northwest Side, a group of chaplains are piloting technology called Tap Cloud to video-chat with families of hospitalized patients, said Matthew Thibeau, director of Catholic Spiritual Care Services.
“One of the things the COVID-19 pandemic has required is that we not compromise on the quality of chaplain care, but use technology to deliver chaplain care in a new and exciting way,” he said.
Nurses are also helping patients see and connect with their families through video technology, and Tap Cloud is also starting to be used within Advocate hospitals, the chaplains said.
While patient visits are restricted, in certain cases, chaplains may be allowed inside rooms if they are able and additional precautions are taken, said John Halstead, chief Catholic mission officer at Amita Health.
“If it is a COVID-19 patient or family and there’s an emergency, we are absolutely prepared,” he said. “We’re even trying to go to the extra effort of saying, ‘Is this chaplain comfortable with this additional risk?’ I would say 99 percent of them would run into a fire for patients. That is just how they are wired.”
For Catholic patients who request the sacrament of anointing of the sick or ask that last rites be given — both of which cannot be performed virtually — the Chicago Archdiocese is able to send in priests, Bona said.
Health care workers need prayer support
At Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, Skariya and Bona say they have found themselves ministering more to the health care professionals they see around them as they, too, navigate this challenging time on the front lines of the pandemic.
“Our efforts around staff support have grown 100-fold in this time,” Bona said. “It was always a part of our work, but now it’s most of the work that I do now.”
The hospital has also established a 24/7 chaplain hotline available for hospital employees to call, she said.
Skariya said he makes it a point to visit each nurse’s station during his unit rounds, asking how the nurses are doing and if there is anything they need.
“When I think about my role as a chaplain during this time, I am reminded of this picture I’ve seen on Facebook and other forms of social media a lot,” he said. “It’s of a nurse sitting on the ground after a 12, 14-hour day of non-stop tending to COVID-19 patients and Jesus is standing next to her with his hand on her. That’s what I think my ministry is on the unit. It’s bringing a light, bringing spirituality, bringing a calming presence to this chaotic situation by putting my hand on them and asking, ‘Is there anything I can do for you? Can I pray for you?’”
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