Hospital chaplains care for souls of sick

With hands lifted, Father Warren Harvey says the noontime Mass at CHI St. Vincent Infirmary in May. Among other measures the chaplain has in place to minister to others during the coronavirus pandemic are creating one-time use kits for anointing of the sick.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
With hands lifted, Father Warren Harvey says the noontime Mass at CHI St. Vincent Infirmary in May. Among other measures the chaplain has in place to minister to others during the coronavirus pandemic are creating one-time use kits for anointing of the sick. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

As many as six people each day in the Little Rock area would visit CHI St. Vincent Infirmary in Little Rock for Father Warren Harvey's noontime Mass.

Once Arkansas began seeing cases of covid-19 in mid-March, medical facilities stopped allowing visitors to limit the spread of the virus.

Harvey, suddenly addressing an empty chapel -- as with other faith leaders in the state who provided virtual services -- was asked if he wanted to continue saying the Mass.

"We believe in a holistic approach to health care, that the human person consists of the physical body and the spiritual dimension," said Harvey, who has continued with the Mass as a method to keep providing spiritual care for anyone wishing to tune in. "We minister to the patient's spiritual needs and we do visit those as requested, but we also try to make routine visits to everybody ... just to let them know we're praying for them."

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The presence of visitors at Mass is but one aspect of Harvey's work that has changed because of the pandemic, as he and chaplains throughout the nation's health care systems navigate ministering to the ill and dying while socially distanced -- and act as a vital relay system between patients and loved ones for whom the inability to be in one another's company exacerbates the stress and pain of illness.

Generally providing around-the-clock availability or being on call, chaplains help to shoulder the emotional or spiritual toll of patients, doctors, nurses and staff. Sometimes that's achieved through prayer, sometimes with a hand on the shoulder.

Chaplains are "well versed" in tragedy, according to Susan McDougal, director of the pastoral care department at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Chaplains and those who are in the hospital's chaplaincy residency program work 24-hour shifts at the Little Rock health care facility.

In addition to ministering to patients who have coronavirus and the health care workers who take care of them, "we are meeting the needs of our emergency department ... [there might be] a horrible car accident that changes people's lives, who may be dying when they get here, people who have been shot, stabbed, [involved in] domestic violence, and that goes on all night long in addition to the calls that come from our inpatient floors," McDougal said.


"Even before all of this [coronavirus] happened, a hospital can be a very stressful place to work," said Michael Millard, a Catholic layman and chaplain in the CHI St. Vincent health care system.

All, he said, have felt called to the ministry of the chaplaincy.

"They're answering God's call to care for his people," Millard said.

For Libby Grobmyer, chaplain of the UAMS palliative care department, the changes in patients that chaplains bear witness to have enabled her to better understand those to whom she ministers.

"I would say as chaplains we deal with change in other people's lives -- immediate change or subtle change where the world shifts -- and I think during this crisis, the pandemic, we found that we are in that same position of adapting to change, understanding the change," Grobmyer said.

Shane Robertson, a CHI St. Vincent chaplain based in the system's Hot Springs hospital, said he has noticed a difference in patients' well-being and health as a result of not being able to see their loved ones.

"A lot of patients who come in need their physical needs met, but part of the healing process is also that emotional and spiritual side," Robertson said. "One of the things I've seen with several of our patients is that they seem to be more discouraged, more in despair, more depressed because they don't have their loved one by their side."


During a given shift where he ministers in the emergency department, hospice and intensive care units, he said these days he's been staying with patients longer "because they are feeling a little bit lonely and a little more down" without visits from family or fellow congregation members.

"I understand why we have [the visitor restriction], but it has had an impact," Robertson said.

Since the pandemic began, Pastor Larry Charles has been videotaping positive messages called chapel talks, which are meant to be encouraging to those who hear them. Beyond the lack of physical contact between chaplains and patients that can be comforting -- a handshake, a hug, holding the hand of a patient -- the director of pastoral care at Little Rock's CARTI Cancer Center said he has noticed that one element the pandemic has affected is "people's anxiety," and an increase in the number of those who want to talk about what they're experiencing, "whether that be grappling with the unknown, [or] a loss of control."

"It's not necessarily preaching, but it's something to give you a more positive outlook," Charles said of the chapel talks.


Providing emotional and spiritual support to coronavirus patients also has taken different forms.

Tanya Jeffcoat, a second-year resident at the UAMS chaplaincy program, recently recalled using a cellphone to speak with a family of a patient's loved ones who had to remain outside the hospital.

She also had a walkie-talkie, which with the cellphone allowed her to communicate messages between the family and the patient who, beyond glass and walls, was dying of covid-19.

"It was just so much harder hearing the pain of family members who simply could not come into the hospital because of protocol because we needed to protect everyone," Jeffcoat said.

Harvey, the chaplain at CHI St. Vincent, has assembled a one-time use kit for anointing the sick -- a sacrament in the Catholic Church that a priest or bishop administers that's meant to be healing and redemptive. A kit hasn't yet been requested at the hospital, but through contacting Bishop Anthony Taylor, Harvey has made the hospital regulation kits available to priests throughout the Little Rock Diocese.


Gloria Brooks, who has more than two decades of experience as a physical therapist and is used to being in proximity to patients, said that within two months of serving as chaplain at UAMS during the pandemic, she could feel depression settling in and consoled herself with prayer.

"You just realize that you have to go on, but it does affect you," Brooks said.

Chaplains are leaning on one another for support, Jeffcoat said.

"We chaplains are able to come together in a group and connect with one another and help one another because of the patients, and to learn new ways of caring for them while also caring for ourselves," Jeffcoat said.

After tending to a physician's assistant who was concerned about a patient about to begin treatment for a serious illness, fellow UAMS chaplain Jim Gibbons said he was asked, "'Who was the chaplain to the chaplains?'"

"The reality is, the chaplains all [minister] to the chaplains," Gibbons said. "All of my colleagues here at one point or another have been a chaplain to me during a time of trouble. It's no different [from] every [other] pastor. Every minister. Every pastor to the pastor or priest to the priest."

The larger community also has shown support through sending food, homemade masks and other forms of support. Robertson, the chaplain at the Hot Springs CHI St. Vincent location, said churches are sending notes of gratitude and prayers to staff. Multicolored letters staked into the ground and flanked by stars spell out a greeting to all passing through a main entrance of one facility: "Heroes work here."

Millard said with chaplains based in Little Rock, Sherwood and Hot Springs -- and volunteer chaplains who help out at the CHI St. Vincent system's Morrilton location -- there are enough people to cover the facilities' needs at the moment. Each, he said, has been willing to put in the hard work needed to help support patients and staff.

"I work with an amazing group of folks who are called to this ministry," Millard said. "And when necessary, we will put in a lot of hours and respond to a lot of requests.

"The most important thing is that we're able to care for God's people."

Religion on 06/06/2020

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