I work at a large, 300-plus bed hospital in Columbus, Ohio. My primary assignment is the emergency department, where we average around 2,500 traumas and 80,000 to 90,000 patient visits a year.
In this environment, you never know what the next moment might look like, for you never know the next need that might enter the door. It's part of the unique experience of the emergency department.
However, the coronavirus is different. By May 5, more than 260,000 people around the world had died; globally, the number of cases surpassed 3.7 million. In the United States, according to Johns Hopkins data, over 70,000 have died from COVID-19. Ohio has had more than 22,000 cases, and over 1,200 Ohioans have lost their lives. I have personally been with families who have lost a loved one to this disease.
The coronavirus has changed things in terrifying ways, and the human response has been nothing less than inspiring.Let me explain. While you never know what may come in next into an emergency department, you also hold a quiet confidence. All staff members have trained extensively, and you trust your training. Over time, you learn to trust your teammates and what each person brings to the team.
Consider a car accident, for example. As horrendous as that might be, we do not worry that we could be putting ourselves and our loved ones at risk. We quickly discovered, however: COVID-19 is different. The coronavirus took this confidence away and brought a level of fear.
I remember March 27 very well. It was the first day we had a COVID-positive patient in the hospital. In fact, before the shift ended, that number had grown to three. At one point, the emergency department had 10 suspected coronavirus patients. We had prepared six rooms in the emergency department for COVID-positive patients, and we had 32 beds in the main hospital staffed and ready to receive those patients.
At that moment, we felt behind the curve, but the courage and resolve of the team was incredible. Staff working directly in patients' rooms were able to gown appropriately. Observing nurses, patient care assistants, respiratory therapists, pharmacists and doctors entering these rooms again and again is something I will never forget. Watching the team perform CPR on a suspected COVID-positive patient, with all the potential threats involved to themselves and those they love, gave me a new perspective on the sacrificial love revealed to the world through the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus.
On this Friday afternoon, all support staff, including unit coordinators, registrars, social workers, transportation personnel, dietitians, maintenance workers, housecleaning staff and chaplains, had not been given personal protective equipment (PPE). Everyone knew the risk could be literally in the air as patient after patient was brought in by emergency medical services. No matter how prepared you are, you cannot isolate a patient while you are wheeling them through the emergency department to their equipped room where the gowned team awaits them.
And everyone stayed. When I returned to work the next Monday, the resilient and resourceful upper-management team had acted, and we had nearly 15 rooms in the emergency department that had been modified by brave construction workers for COVID-positive patients, and our hospital capacity had increased to 48 rooms prepared to receive these patients.This expansion capacity has continued. Thirteen days after that first suspected coronavirus patient arrived, we had nearly 30 emergency department beds and 96 floor beds ready for COVID-19 cases. We are always trying to stay ahead of the curve.
What is the role of the chaplain during this pandemic and how has it changed? The chaplain's role can be summarized in three ways: prayer, presence and representatives of hope.
I am very fortunate to work in a hospital system that allows an overhead prayer. Each Monday morning, I have prayed this prayer.
To everything there is a season.
Oh, good and gracious God, our heavenly Father,
So much of life has changed for each of us in the recent past, and today we face challenges that we could not have imagined.
Be with us, dear God. Be with us in our frustrations and fears. Be with us whenever we might feel overwhelmed and fatigued. Be with us each day as we do the best we possibly can for those we serve and for each other. Be with us in our weeping and in our resiliency.
Bless those, heavenly Father, that we love and carry with us in our minds and in our hearts. Give us strength and courage. Fill us with compassion and give us the wisdom to know when it is time to be still and allow you to refresh our souls so we can continue to face the challenges before us, rooted in your truth and hope.
For there is a time for every season. A time to weep and a time to laugh. Lead us, O God, to the time of laughter once again. In your holy name, we pray. Amen.
As a spiritual care department, we attempt to provide prayer over the intercom as often as possible. We have been asked many times to pray with individual staff or teams. The overhead prayer can reach the most people, and each time, staff reaction has been plentiful and positive. One chaplain took it upon herself to sanitize and distribute to staff over 100 tokens with symbols of a dove, peace, an angel or faith. Many staff seemed to draw great strength from these tokens, and having something tangible to simply hold was centering. Two amazing priests received special permission from the bishop to gown and enter the room of COVID-positive Catholic patients to administer the sacraments.
A hospital chaplain learns to live with limited resources. With just one to four chaplains in the hospital, the patient-to-chaplain ratio is so great that it is always impossible to get to every need. You simply pray each day that God will lead you where you are needed most.
Presence is a huge part of the ministry of a chaplain. Being a compassionate presence is the beginning point of every encounter with patients and families. Holding a patient's hand, a kind touch, a caring smile, an empathetic ear, and a knowing and warm look in the eye are invaluable tools a chaplain uses every day. However, these tools are very limited when patients are in isolation, and families cannot enter the hospital to visit their loved one. Isolation presents a new and difficult challenge and reminds us that being in relationship with other people and with God is what it means to be fully human.
In our hospital setting, PPE worn to enter a room is limited and reserved for the medical staff. In order to preserve the limited PPE resources and, more importantly, to protect patients, families and staff, I cannot enter patients' rooms. The chaplain is not limited to one unit in the hospital but travels throughout the entire hospital. Therefore, the potential of the chaplain inadvertently carrying the virus to other patients and other areas of the hospital is very real.
Ministering in these situations is done primarily through phone and with families. Occasionally, a chaplain may be able to talk on the phone with a patient, but most patients are too sick or tired to talk in this way. When families request prayer for a loved one, the chaplain simply stands outside of the room and prays. Prayer is a very powerful gift that God has given us, and not even a virus, not even a pandemic, can take that away!
Chaplains try to track potential COVID patients that have been ruled out and moved to another part of the hospital. Families are still not allowed to visit, and the chaplain visit is usually most welcomed by the patient as they begin to process and emerge from their isolation. Human contact and an empathetic ear can be very healing.
Additionally, the presence of the chaplain continues throughout the hospital. Heart attacks, strokes, car accidents, violence, palliative care, general sickness, deaths and births continue, and the chaplain seeks to meet those needs as well.
Finally, the chaplain is a representative of hope. At no time in my ministry has this been truer. Simply walking through the hospital can take hours and be exhausting. You can sense and feel people drawing energy and hope out of you. It's hard to explain, yet very, very real. But I love being a chaplain.
This year, I celebrated the risen Lord on a very different Easter. The very next morning, I was back at the hospital, with no idea of what would await me. But what I do know, rooted in truth and grace, is that an amazing team, embodying sacrificial love, awaits me. I do know that God's power in prayer and presence awaits me. And I do know the truth of hope, for hope is not rooted in a human feeling, but is known in a risen Savior!