Chaplains Offer Comfort When COVID Keeps Family Away
Hospital chaplains are accustomed to soothing patients and families with compassion that’s both spoken and silent – a sympathetic tilt of the head, a gentle touch of a shoulder, a chair pulled up close.
The COVID-19 crisis made their work more difficult – and more crucial – than ever.
“As you can imagine, the need for spiritual and emotional support right now is enormous,” says Laura Romano, Director of Spiritual Care and Mindfulness at Einstein Healthcare Network.
But there are no families to console in person. There is no way to comfort the many patients who are intubated and unconscious. The COVID outbreak has restricted chaplains to connecting families and patients over telephones or computers.
Still, there are moments of unexpected poignancy and purpose.
Consolation by Phone
Chaplain Matthew Arlyck, for instance, was visiting a patient on a COVID-19 floor when a medical resident at the bed of another patient waved him over. “He says, ‘This patient is about to die and I have his daughter on the phone here and I’d like you to be able to be with her,’” Arlyck says.
“She was a devout Catholic. We prayed together and we said the ‘Our Father’ at the end, and then I put her on speaker phone and she was able to say goodbye to him,” Arlyck says. “I told her I was holding his hand and that was important for her and very meaningful for me. I was grateful that I was there in that moment.”
COVID has made Einstein’s four staff chaplains “change the way they do their chaplaincy” says Rabbi Leah Wald, program manager.
“They’ve needed to hone their skills without relying on the nonverbal communication they’re attuned to rely on,” she says. “That’s challenging. They want to provide the same care and empathy and they more often have to do it via distance and technology.”
Arlyck agrees. “So much of my work involves as much what I don’t say as what I do say – it involves my facial expressions, how I may be leaning forward, whether I’m sitting or standing, what I’m doing with my hands,” he says.
“So all of that has pretty much been eliminated, with the exception of video calls – and even then since I’m wearing a mask. It becomes limited to what I do with my eyes and my hands.”
The chaplains are also working with “the same sadness and distress and worry that everyone else has,” Rabbi Wald says. They, too, are at risk of being infected by the deadly virus.
“It’s been challenging,” says Chaplain Robin Ross, who has asthma and who initially declined to work in-person during the crisis. She then was inspired by her faith in God to do so.
“I think about getting sick. But what I think about more is the opportunity to connect a patient to their loved one. That’s what’s been pushing me and motivating me, Chaplain Ross says. “We have become their surrogate family. We’re there when no one else that loves them can be there.”
And that provides a profound sense of fulfillment.
“The unprecedented trauma has definitely impacted me,” Chaplain Arlyck says. “It’s made me very sad and very worried about our collective future. At the same time, it’s balanced with a really deep sense of purpose. So even though I’m exposed to so much grief and trauma, I’m also grateful that I’m here.”