Pandemic means facing boundaries, exhaustion for hospital chaplains
The COVID-19 pandemic showed us the heroes in our midst. And hospital chaplains rank high on that list.
During this pandemic year, hospital chaplains have been subject to stress and overwork, especially with added casework and fewer volunteers allowed to help. They have born the pain of more deaths than they’ve ever seen. And for a profession where healing touch and a compassionate personal presence are integral, ministering at times from a distance was heartbreaking.
For Catholic chaplain Mary Gibbons-Georgevich, the experience of working in a hospital during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was a time of spiritual growth and challenge.
“I’ve become more contemplative. I’ve had to slow down and reflect on what I was seeing,” Gibbons-Georgevich said. “I tried to see hope, and I found my ability to come into silence with patients really improve.”
At first her hospital, Mercy Health-St. Vincent Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio, kept chaplains from entering all rooms, even of non-COVID-19 patients. After a month, chaplains were once again in regular rooms, but restricted from physical contact with COVID-19 patients.
Rosaries were prayed over the phone, and Gibbons-Georgevich found herself saying prayers of commendation for the dying as she touched the patient’s door and communicated through Zoom with patients and their loved ones.
“I found myself ministering to the family as much as the patient,” she said, “but that’s always a big part of our work.”
Gibbons-Georgevich said she “couldn’t have made it through without our team of chaplains” who regularly debriefed together.
“We had the sense that God was there with us. I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit working through me.”
When exhausted, she found herself gravitating to Psalm 23. “I felt I was in that dark valley.”
Meanwhile, David Sweeney, a Catholic chaplain at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, was allowed into the rooms of COVID-19 patients. The Nebraska Medical Center made headlines in 2014 by being a national leader in treating Americans who had become infected with Ebola. The center also has a specialized biocontainment unit on its large midtown campus.
For those reasons, their approach to pandemic ministry might have been bolder than smaller hospitals unused to confronting new infectious diseases.
“We chaplains were all fitted for N95 respirators,” Sweeney said. “If it’s nonessential, we call into the rooms.” But if needed, they could enter, and since visitors from outside were not allowed, the chaplains were even more in demand.
Sweeney did not stress about taking the virus home to his wife. He felt confident with the center’s precautions and said he felt more vulnerable at the grocery store. But he said “it got stressful at the height of the pandemic when we had double the normal number of deaths per day. That was tough.”
He sees his role as to “ensure that God’s presence is recognized by the patients. They’re not alone.”
After 17 years of working with the sick and dying, Sweeney didn’t find his own spiritualty challenged, but he still struggles with those who won’t wear masks.
Gibbons-Georgevich did worry about taking the virus home. She would wash her clothes in hot water after work, and laughs that she had to start wearing scrubs because the laundry was taking a toll on her wardrobe.
She would sometimes be so tired she’d go to bed right after work, and she slept in a different bed than her husband to avoid the possibility of infecting him. When she finally received her vaccine, she cried from relief.
“My husband has been so supportive,” she said.
Both Gibbons-Georgevich and Sweeney see a light at the end of the tunnel. Increased vaccinations and continued mask-wearing are bringing decreased hospitalizations. The Nebraska Medical Center has gone from seven units completely full to only one in March.
“It feels like Easter is around the corner,” said Gibbons-Georgevich, who spoke in the midst of Lent.
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Caldarola is a freelance writer and a Catholic News Service columnist.