One Chaplain’s Perspective
At the beginning of the pandemic last March, I landed in the emergency room at White Plains Hospital, where I’m a staff chaplain, on a gurney wired up to machines monitoring my life functions. At first, the doctors suspected COVID or a heart attack; the cause was probably just anxiety. But here I was the patient, not the chaplain. I felt frightened and vulnerable, as if my life was out of my control and in the hands of others. I decided to pray. I prayed for myself as I do for those patients I visit daily. It comforted and humbled me as I gained a deeper understanding of a patient’s hospital experience. My faith told me I had to trust that I was being held in Christ’s compassionate heart. It was time for me to live my faith. Holding on to my belief gave me hope.
That episode has helped me navigate this pandemic year at the hospital. The scene on that late evening in the emergency room was surreal. I was assessed for admission into the ER in a tent outside the hospital. My partner wasn’t allowed to come in with me. The ER itself was full of sick patients, some with multiple members of their family. We were all kept isolated as much as possible under large red COVID-19 signs that just added to the tension. The hospital staff—wearing air-cooling helmets, N95 masks, face shields and full personal protective equipment (PPE)—looked like they belonged in “Star Wars.” The tension in the room and the whirring of the medical machinery just added to my unease. I was feeling quite alone. What had I walked into? Long after my visit to the ER, the experience stirred more empathy in me for those to whom I minister.
In the pandemic’s early days, we were kept off the patient floors to protect ourselves and others, as well as to save on PPE. Telephone calls to those who were able to answer were challenging. Patients who were very sick found it difficult to talk. It was nearly impossible for me to believe that I was getting through to them, with machines pulsing and beeping in the background. Were any of my words or prayers even heard, much less bringing any comfort?
Eventually, we returned to in-person visits with patients but only in full PPE, including a surgical gown, gloves, head covers, shoe covers and face shields. Imagine how it feels to be ill and to receive someone in your room whose gear and six-foot distance from you only underscore the gravity of the situation? Yet, our patients often express gratitude for our presence and prayer. The clinical staff, trying to provide emotional support while attending to medical needs, welcome us as a necessary part of the patient’s care team.
Despite the PPE, and now the vaccine for us staffers, we constantly fear transmitting the virus to others. But I’ve placed my personal fears in Christ’s hands. Working as a chaplain during the pandemic has been a blessing.
For me, this ministry was an unexpected journey. I am an “accidental chaplain.” When I was a child, my chronically ill father was all too often in the hospital. I thought I’d rather be anywhere else. As part of the deacon formation program, I was challenged to reckon with my fear. Christ helps us to find strength in our weaknesses. Discovering that I was called to chaplaincy, I never left my hospital field placement. Perhaps my frequent visits to my dad’s hospital room had something to do with this calling. I am certain, though, that Christ helps us to discover strengths hidden by our weaknesses.
Chaplains bring a “ministry of presence” to those who are ill and alone, their lives upended like mine was in the ER that evening a year ago. A visit with a patient in that time of isolation and illness becomes sacred—a path to encountering Christ, the Healer. With both chaplain and patient drinking from the rich fount of God’s grace, the moment becomes intimate and holy, despite the surroundings, the PPE and the social distance. We chaplains know we’re not bearing Christ into a patient’s room. Christ is already there, and we’re joining the patient and Christ in that sacred relationship. Listening, praying, providing companionship and support are the chaplain’s work and ministry—not unlike what we are all called to do as part of our own baptismal covenant.