Hospital chaplains adapt ministry to serve patients

BRAINTREE -- In times of crisis, chaplains provide spiritual support to people experiencing overwhelming anxiety and grief. But in recent weeks, hospital chaplains have found themselves having to adapt the way they minister to patients, families, and health care professionals in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Deacon Jim Greer, director of chaplaincy programs in the archdiocese, said the hospital chaplains have been updating him on the situations at the hospitals throughout the archdiocese.

"They're doing the best they can with the resources that they have and the allowances that are given by each of the hospitals," Deacon Greer said in a March 27 interview.

Many chaplains are now working from home, checking on patients and colleagues by email, text messages and phone calls. Some have set up daily prayer lines, and some take the time to call each Catholic patient in the hospitals where they work.

Craig Gibson has been a Catholic chaplain at Lawrence General Hospital for almost 10 years. He said that when the "gravity" of COVID-19 became apparent, the hospital chaplains communicated with hospital staff about how they could continue their work. In each case, they considered such factors as the chaplain's age and medical history, and the way the hospital was designating essential and nonessential personnel.

One nurse manager told Gibson that, at a time like this, chaplains would be designated as "vital" but not "essential." He said he thinks this is the case at most hospitals.

"Chaplains are vital to the wellbeing of the patients' family members and certainly staff at all levels. But at a time when there are growing shortages of rubber gloves and gowns and M95 masks, you have to draw very sharp lines between essential and nonessential," Gibson said.

Like many chaplains in the archdiocese, Gibson has been "developing a new set of practices" in order to carry out his ministry remotely, reaching out to patients in the intensive care unit and emergency room through phone calls rather than in-person visits.

Some patients he talks to are awaiting test results to see if they have COVID-19.

"Those patients are very nervous. They're very upset. Their life will change dramatically if they get back a positive test result. And we've had a chance to be able to comfort them, to pray with them, and to bless them," Gibson said.

He recalled a recent interaction he had with an 85-year-old patient. While they were talking by phone, the patient said he could not remember all the words of the Hail Mary and asked for help reciting the prayer. Gibson talked him through it, and then sent a copy of the prayer so he could print it and study it. He later learned from a nurse that the patient kept the printout on his desk. Gibson saw this as an example of "being present but in a way that for the patient made a big difference."

"The chaplains are committed to continuing to be as present as they can be," he said.

Mary Beth Moran, a faith community nurse who has been a chaplain at Winchester Hospital for almost 20 years, has also been working from home for the past few weeks.

Before she left the hospital, Moran provided the nurses with prayer resources, including some related to Holy Week, that they could bring to Catholic patients. They were the kind of materials that would usually be available in the hospital's chapel.

"I've tried to look at what we do have as far as spiritual support and not look at what we don't have, and to be somebody that's resilient and somebody that can offer hope and support and a listening presence and letting people know they're not alone in this," Moran said in a March 31 interview.

While her colleague Rabbi Richard Backer has continued to minister to patients at Winchester Hospital, Moran has been trying to provide resources and support to hospital staff, parish priests, and other chaplains in the archdiocese. She has also been attending webinars through the Catholic Health Association and National Association of Catholic Chaplains to stay up-to-date and connected with other chaplains.

Gibson called the doctors, nurses and other hospital staff "heroic."

"They, too, carry those fears and their concerns, for themselves, for their coworkers, for their family workers," Gibson said.

Moran understands the nurses because she, too, is a registered nurse, though her role at Winchester Hospital is that of a chaplain.

"I love my staff because I know how hard their job is. I know how much support they need. And I know how much they care. So it's a real privilege to be allowed to work among them," Moran said.