Charleston area chaplains help hospital staff access spiritual strength in pandemic | News

The Rev. Janet Edwards has witnessed the power of prayer. When the coronavirus pandemic broke

The Rev. Janet Edwards has witnessed the power of prayer.

When the coronavirus pandemic broke out earlier this year and brought an influx of patients to Trident Medical Center, a nurse who was feeling overwhelmed asked Edwards for some encouraging words.

Edwards, a full-time chaplain at the hospital, promised to say a prayer. But the hospital staff member couldn’t wait.

At that moment, they invoked God’s presence.

The nurse calmed. She returned to her work.

“(Prayer) is a centering,” said Edwards, who leads Trident’s pastoral care program. “It’s a grounding.”

The coronavirus’ impact on people’s health is seen in the thousands of lives claimed by the deadly disease. However, COVID-19’s devastation transcends the physical. And it doesn’t just hurt those it inflicts.

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Janet Edwards, a chaplain with Trident Health, walks to the emergency department to meet with a patient on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Surrounded by death and burdened by the weight of caring for those suffering from the disease, COVID-19 is taking a spiritual toll on hospital staff. Healthcare workers are increasingly seeking help from hospital chaplains for counsel, prayer and encouragement to help them as they provide increased physical and emotional support to patients who have limited visitors due to the pandemic.

Chaplains are also in a unique situation as they seek creative ways to provide comfort while practicing social distancing. Virtual pastoral care sessions and meditations have replaced physical meetings. Hugging is usually off-limits, though some pastors admit the difficulty of denying an embrace from discouraged medical workers.

‘A lot of stress’

At the Medical University of South Carolina, hospital chaplains have seen just under 200 staff support interventions this year — a 20 percent uptick from last year, according to the Rev. Frank Harris, manager of pastoral care services at MUSC.

A similar trend has occurred at Trident hospital, as well, chaplains said.

Providing health care, which can already be a demanding and stressful job, was made more difficult by a pandemic that has forced workers to take extra precautions. 

The disease, even if you never get infected, affects everyone in a hospital. It impacts all of the staff — nurses, physicians, physical therapists, nurse practitioners, janitorial staff and others. 

Additionally, working long hours, fears of taking the disease home to loved ones and an increased exposure to death have been heavy burdens for staff to carry. Plus, because COVID-19 limits those who can be around coronavirus-positive patients, hospital caretakers often end up being the only persons present when an infected patient dies. 

“Just a lot of stress and a lot of grief,” Edwards said. “This has been a traumatizing experience for people.”

Britney Ward, a bedside nurse at Trident, was initially worried she might take the disease home to her husband and three young children. It has also been difficult trying to coordinate with families over the phone to make medical decisions for loved ones.

She’s leaned on other nurses, such as Kim Campbell, for spiritual support who maintain strong faith.

“It was rough at first,” Ward said.


Angela Holten, respiratory therapist (left), talks with Kailin Jackson, nurse practitioner (center) and Dr. Catherine Carlson in the critical care department at Trident Medical Center on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Campbell, a nurse case manager at Trident, said she’s looked much to her faith for help amid the pandemic. 

Working during the crisis can place one in a “spiritual desert,” where one’s soul is weakened that they might find strength in the Christ, she said.

She’s also looked to chaplains for guidance. Campbell said she takes hospital patients and their families as “her own,” placing herself in their situations.

Something as simple as a soft-spoken word from a spiritual leader can provide much-needed encouragement.

“We have a peace that others can’t understand,” she said.

The disease has also impacted the family of medical professionals.

The Rev. Bettye Broomfield, an associate chaplain at Trident, recalled speaking with a staff member whose child feared the mother would become infected with the virus while at the hospital.

She helped connect the child with members of a local church, who helped reassure him that his mother would be safe.

Doing ministry differently

The virus has altered the way spiritual leaders perform pastoral care. Spiritual counseling relies heavily on nonverbal communication, but safety precautions have served as hindrances.

Mask wearing makes it difficult to read a person’s facial expressions, and not being able to hug takes away a meaningful act of compassion.

At MUSC, the pastoral care program itself has seen cutbacks. Coronavirus-related furloughs slashed the pastoral care program’s department in half for several months. Additionally, chaplains are usually present at the hospital 24/7. But the pandemic forced chaplains to provide phone-only coverage late at night.

That meant if a patient died, there would be no minister physically present to pray and comfort the staff and family.

“COVID has gotten in the way of pastoral care,” said Robin Bugbee, an associate chaplain.

Nonetheless, clergy found ways to provide ministry in a time where people could find hope in desperate circumstances.

MUSC’s chaplains have engaged in one-on-one spiritual care interventions with staff, and unit rounds where ministers make intentional visits to check on staff morale.

Ministers have hosted virtual debriefs to offer a space for healthcare professionals to express their feelings and emotions about these difficult times, and have conducted daily prayers and meditations online.

A local congregation also donated goodie bags that a chaplain brought to emergency department staff.

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Janet Edwards, a chaplain with Trident Health, checks in with Stephanie Martin, a registered nurse, in the critical care department at Trident Medical Center on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. Lauren Petracca/Staff

The MUSC pastoral team has also worked with other hospital groups, such as the arts and healing program. A minster would offer encouraging words that would be followed by guitarists who would sing and play uplifting music.

For Harris, one of his most memorable moments of ministry was when he married a hospital staff couple during the pandemic. Though their original plans were altered, the two had an outdoor wedding with a handful of family members.

The ceremony served as a reminder of love and hope in a time of despair.

“It was a chance for me to witness hope and love in the future,” Harris said. “It’s a reminder that love conquers all.”

While a lot has changed, much has remained the same. This includes the overall approach and end goal of spiritual care, which is mainly about listening intently to a person’s worries and concerns and then reminding them there’s hope in what might be a seemingly hopeless situation.

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