PORTLAND, Oregon — We hear stories about doctors and nurses on the front lines. We hear about patients fighting for their lives and their families. But there's another group of people working quietly and powerfully to help care for all of them: the chaplains.
Hospital chaplains are helping redefine what it means to be present with someone as they connect patients with loved ones separated by a pandemic.
“COVID-19 changed everything,” said William DeLong, Director of Spiritual Care for Legacy Emanuel Medical Center, Randall Children's Hospital and the Legacy Oregon Burn Center. In 37 years as a chaplain, DeLong said he’s never experienced anything like this.
"Sometimes it's us on the other end of the phone looking through the glass door talking to the family member and describing what the scene looks like, if their loved one's unable to speak because they're on a ventilator,” shared DeLong.
Only during patients' end-of-life moments do Legacy's chaplains gown-up in personal protective equipment to meet with patients in person. It's a sacrifice to preserve their limited supply of PPE; one of many emotional sacrifices made daily.
“Watching nurses that I've worked with for years and years being really emotionally distraught,” said DeLong of the struggles felt by medical staff. "All of those team members caring for patients, it just takes a toll.”
It’s one reason Legacy chaplains dedicate one shift per day to care for hospital staff. One of the biggest stresses they experience comes from worrying about patients' isolation from loved ones.
“People are wondering, ‘How is my loved one doing? Are they okay? Are they going to survive?’” said Michelle Todd, lead chaplain at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center. “Often if they can't see how their loved one is doing with their own eyes they're feeling very lost and very confused.”
Each day Todd and her staff call loved ones to virtually connect them with patients.
“So many family members have said, 'Thank you so much for reaching out to us,'" said Todd. "'We wouldn't have known how to be connected to our loved ones.’”
Not every patient that needs spiritual care is isolated in a hospital room. Chaplain Andrew Turner speaks with patients both in-person and remotely who are part of the VA Portland Healthcare System. He said being a good listener is key but can be harder than it sounds, especially now.
“We want to be helpful,” said Turner. “We want to talk about all the great things that are on the other side of this pandemic, or the things that we have to be thankful for. Often times when we do that, we're taking care of our own anxiety.”
Turner said the thing to strive for is to be present for others who are sick, worried or stressed. Often times that means simply offering them your ears, empathy and a quiet space to share.
“It may be uncomfortable to listen to,” said Turner. “Nobody likes to see another person weep or to see another person talk about how hard life is.”
“For me to be able to say, ‘You know what, the entire public is praying for us and praying for you,’” said DeLong, “Those can be very meaningful things at times like this.”