From the early days of the pandemic, hospital chaplains have gone where others can’t go, comforting the sick and the caregivers.
In an interview, Chris Baker, a chaplain at Rochester General Hospital for the last 20 years, talked about efforts to bring spiritual support to patients despite COVID-related restrictions. She reflected on the pressure on staff to give care despite their own fears, and she celebrated the miracles that occur, even in dark times.
Here, edited for space and continuity, are her thoughts:
People often ask me how I can do this work because a chaplain’s day is usually pretty full of crisis. But not always, and I meet incredible people along the way.
The hard part of my job is I didn’t get to meet patients when they had been well, before their illness. I hear the stories of what great people they were, the funny stories, the sad stories. I wish I’d known them when they were healthy.
But at the same time, I’m allowed to be with them. And one of the things that we learn as chaplains is you don’t always have to be talking; the most important thing that you can do is to be present.
It’s humbling to know that in our role we are the representation of the holy, whatever that is for that particular patient and their family. It is an incredible honor and privilege to be able to sit with patients in times of incredible crisis.
Confusion and stress
Early on in the pandemic, there was so much conflicting information, because nobody knew how this virus worked and what it was going to be, what it was going to do.
There was all this confusion. There was anger. There was hurt. Nurses would need to take a short step away and allow themselves a moment to break down and then get back to their patients and continue to give them their all. This is when a 16-bed ICU would have 15 COVID patients in it. Fortunately, now we’re down to one or two.
I don’t know how these nurses do it. They are absolutely phenomenal human beings. I’ve been here 20 years, and I see it over and over and over again. Rochester General is a place devoted to compassionate care, and we take great pride in our commitment to our patients and their families.
When the pandemic was really high, we had a really high number of patients who were COVID and in isolation, many of whom were elderly and could not be visited, even by some staff who were not in a position to give direct personal/medical care.
I’ve had some staff tell me that we’ve actually had some patients die of loneliness. This is heartbreaking.
It’s hard enough to hear and understand someone when you’re sick. But when you’re elderly and sick and someone’s talking behind a plastic face shield and a mask, you can’t see their lips, you can’t see what expression they’re using, it only adds to patients’ fears and anxieties. They see doctors and nurses behind all this, and it can be frightening and isolating.
Chaplaincy, by its very nature, is holistic. We take care of patients, and we take care of the staff, and we take care of one another.
I spent a lot of time with staff supporting them in this time as they adjusted to exhaustion, as they faced the fear of taking the virus home to their families. Or they were stuck home because their child couldn’t go to school, and they were learning how to handle having a child learn online.
And on top of the stress of COVID, our summer saw horrible racial strife. Then the election drama piled on top of it all. It has been an exceptionally stressful time, which is why I like to keep my focus especially on the staff since I’ve been here so long. Many of us know each other well, and they can feel comfortable sharing their feelings with me.
As far as I’m concerned, this pandemic also has been harder because people’s pastors, their priests, their religious leaders, can’t visit. Even now they can’t visit because, with the restrictions, each patient is only allowed two visitors.
That’s very hard, especially for our Catholic patients who are requesting the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. The Anointing of the Sick is something only a Catholic priest can do.
I’ve said prayers over the phone at the doors of a COVID patient’s room, with a family on the phone on the other end. You just find ways to make happen what needs to happen.
For the most part, families (given the situation) just want someone with their loved one to offer prayers, someone to be there, to bring in the presence of the Divine. They understand that we are doing the best we possibly can, and that God is bigger than all of this, and that God’s going to give us what we need.
We have seen miracles like you would not believe.
Several years ago, we had a young man who had tried to hurt himself. His mother was very adamant. She demanded that the doctors not take him off life support. She was adamant that God was going to save him.
Everybody with medical knowledge was positive that this young man was not going to survive. His brain had been deprived of oxygen for too long. Providers, including myself, tried to help her be realistic, but she would hear none of it. God was going to heal her son.
About six months later, this young man walked out of this hospital. A couple years ago, he came back to visit. He is a walking miracle. I still get chills thinking about this story.
It’s stories like this that enable us to continue to do the that work we do. And we are so very blessed to do so.
From his home in Livingston County, retired senior editor Jim Memmott documents the relatively new normal of living in a socially distant world. He can be reached at [email protected] or write Box 274, Geneseo, NY 14454.
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