Hospital Chaplains Report Uptick in Questions About Eternity, Fight Through Their Own Tears to Help the Grieving
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Former Desert Storm veteran Rocky Walker calls himself the "COVID chaplain." He has worked for years with heart patients at Manhattan's Mount Sinai Hospital, but now he's working in a "COVID-only" unit with patients who, for the most part, are intubated or sometimes not even conscious. Their family members can't visit.
Walker is used to death on the battlefield and even in hospital settings, but the intensity of the new normal right now is entirely different. Constantly wearing a mask, he finds it difficult to express the empathy that those around him need. His unit recently lost a nurse.
"This is a nurse that has been with us for 21 years and what do you say to that? I didn't have any words for that. I was fighting back my own tears," he said.
Like every healthcare chaplain in the country, Walker's job has changed dramatically. He's now typically separated from patients and their loved ones and that is forcing him to connect in new ways.
Cathy Disher is a Southern Baptist chaplain who works with cancer patients in critical care at the James Cancer Hospital. Prior to the crisis, most of her patients were intubated and sedated, so she would focus on their families. Now with visiting restrictions in place, she's connecting primarily by phone. Disher says families welcome the call.
"Families are often looking for some conversations, to let them say what they would like to say," said Disher. "Someone just to chat with. Someone just to share their concerns, to offer them emotional support."
Disher, Walker and other chaplains are also spending more time with frontline nurses, doctors and other hospital staff. Walker says he's noticing what he calls "battle fatigue" after weeks of caring for COVID patients.
"I'm observing what I think is a second wave of this and that is a wave of depression, exhaustion and weariness on the part of the healthcare workers themselves," he said.
Disher offers care packages called "tea for the soul on-the-go" and also supports staff with short breaks.
"We're offering a 10-minute spiritual time. They can call in, have a meditation, have listening to instrumental music, just time to take a break, to breathe," she says.
Hospital chaplains are also fighting a more delicate battle to assert themselves as essential care. Southern Baptist leader Dr. Russell Moore is frustrated that some hospitals see chaplains as just extra.
"My concern is that we need to see hospital chaplains as an essential part of care for our patients and so hospital chaplains have to have access in every way that is safe - but this is an essential part of ministering and caring for people," said Moore who is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Ret. Major General Doug Carver oversees the more than 700 Southern Baptist hospital chaplains. He encourages them to make the case to their hospital that spiritual care is an essential part of healing.
"We need to continue to knock on the door of the authorities to remind them," said Carver.
Carver thinks this crisis could also strengthen the role of chaplains, as the brutality of COVID prompts more conversations about faith.
"We've found that our patients, even our hospital staff that are dealing with death and dying, they are asking a lot of questions about eternity, about suffering, about disease, about death," he said.
Carver says the crisis is also taking a toll on chaplains and that support from local churches is vital. "I would just ask for churches, pastors to continue to lift up the work of our healthcare chaplains," he said.
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