Rev. Sarah Samson, M.Div., BCC, Spiritual Care Coordinator at Memorial Hospital, offers her perspective about providing spiritual care to patients and their loved ones during the pandemic.

When a patient comes in, when a traumatized family shows up, when things get sad or hard to cope with, chaplains help navigate them through those times. We help families understand how the hospital environment works, how communication happens, how to connect with whatever or Whoever gives them strength. Health crises, let alone unfamiliar hospital hallways and elevators, are often difficult to find your way through.

Spiritual Care was prepped for a stretch from April to June that would be different than what any of us had ever experienced. We would need to connect with patients and families in ways that were new for everyone involved. When I returned to work in June after maternity leave, I came back to a hospital that looked very different than the one I had known. In some ways, it still looks different today.

In the beginning, we knew little about COVID-19 and how it spread, so chaplains did not go into the rooms of any patients who were awaiting test results for coronavirus. We had an iPad on wheels that we would take onto the COVID unit so we could talk with patients. After a few weeks, we realized that it was easier for everyone to have the chaplain call the patient on the phone. At times, however, the equipment in the background was so loud that it was a struggle to hear one other. Sometimes it felt like we were shouting prayers so the patient could hear us over the reverse airflow fan in their room.

The reality is that what chaplains normally try to do – contact family and get them there as soon and as often as possible – has been flipped upside down by COVID. Rather than having conversations about getting a patient’s loved ones physically here for them, we talk about how we can best help family members be present for their loved one when they can’t visit in person.

Simple, practical things can be more difficult and involve more steps now, but end-of-life situations are the most difficult. Sometimes we pray together, separated by gowns and gloves and masks. Families have waited gowned and in PPE, ready to rush in after their loved one is extubated so that patient doesn’t die alone. Others have had to choose between being in the hospital with their loved one who is dying, and protecting those they have at home by limiting exposure. Patients, families and staff are navigating realities and circumstances that are new to everyone.

Before I went on maternity leave, there was a lot of team spirit around COVID and a sense of unity that we were going to dive into this together. COVID has stretched long-term with many things still uncertain. I have learned the importance of being kind and assuming the best in others. It can be hard to read people’s faces with masks on. We are all navigating this new normal that tends to make us all a bit more sensitive, more irritable and quicker to assume ill of someone or something. It is hard to give a calming smile behind a mask, and I miss hugs more than anything. But I am learning new ways to lean in to others, to show kindness, to write more cards of gratitude and to figure out more ways to be present, because people can’t always see it through the mask.