Hospital Chaplains Fill Role of Surrogate Family Members During Times of Isolation, Depression, Death

“Can you tell my wife I love her?”

It isn’t often that Rabbi Jason Weiner, hospital chaplain and director of spiritual care at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles, gets a request like that. It came from an elderly man whose wife had been hospitalized. He couldn’t visit her because of strict guidelines in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The man told the rabbi it was the first time in 65 years that they hadn’t slept in the same room, on the same bed.

“Do you know what that’s like?” he asked.

“That was powerful and deeply moving,” Weiner said. “I gave his wife the message and she acknowledged it with a nod.”

In these dire times, as the coronavirus pandemic rips through Southern California and cases continue to surge, chaplains like Weiner are serving as bridges between patients and family members, who are unable to physically be with their loved ones.

Going the extra mile

Chaplains in some Southern California hospitals have taken on additional duties during the pandemic. They are delivering messages, fulfilling requests and taking on responsibilities beyond the scope of their typical roles.

When stay-at-home orders were first imposed and people began to “panic buy,” Jeff Hetschel, lead chaplain at Hoag Hospital Irvine, drove a refrigerated van for hours every day delivering food and supplies to staff members who couldn’t get to the stores before the shelves emptied out. He also ran a makeshift “store” out of a friend’s garage in Irvine where hospital staff could pick up necessities.

“I never envisioned I would do something like that,” said Hetschel, who has served as a chaplain in Orange County for about 16 years. “For one month, that was my job. This pandemic has taught me that in dire times like these, it’s no longer enough to talk just from a religious perspective. We need to focus on people’s needs. I saw adults cry when they could get a 12-pack of toilet paper.”

Technology plays huge role

Hetschel said technology has played a vital role in filling the void of physical isolation brought on by the pandemic. Hoag provided iPads for two sisters who were in different parts of the hospital so one could say her goodbyes to the other, who was dying. Hetschel has prayed palm to palm with patients and family members with a glass barrier between them.

“My goal is to help remove that feeling of isolation through conversation,” he said. “I encourage people to sit by the window, open the drapes, or make a great cup of coffee. Do whatever brings you peace.”

At Cedars-Sinai, Rabbi Weiner said he put up a sign back in April that said “Happy Passover” in English and Hebrew for the benefit of a patient who sincerely observed Passover every year. This year, he was in the intensive care unit.

“Because Passover meant so much to him, his wife suggested we put up the sign on the ICU’s glass windows,” he said. “He saw the sign and gave a nod.”

Weiner said he put up Passover and Easter signs for other patients as well, and it became a show of support for the families.

Longing for human touch

In spite of prayers and gestures, what’s jarring during this pandemic is the inability to have that closeness, like being able to hold hands in prayer, said Carl Ricketts, chaplain at Loma Linda University Health.

“We are not able to connect with patients as we are accustomed or even as we’ve been trained,” he said. “All of the intimacies we’re accustomed to in those sacred moments in that room are gone. Being able to hold hands as a group and being able to recite (the Psalm of David) and be there as a family unit. Now, we’re making it happen through technology.”

What chaplains are struggling with the most is to fill that emptiness at the patients’ bedsides, said Pirjo Carlisle, critical care chaplain at UCI Medical Center in Orange.

“I’m listening actively, I let them verbalize their fears,” she said. “I encourage and prompt the patient to speak from the deepest parts of their soul.”

The loneliness that comes from not being able to have visitors at the hospital adds to patients’ anxieties, said Patrick Thompson, palliative care chaplain at UCI Medical Center.

“Not only are we chaplains, but we take on the role of a family member, a friend or a neighbor,” he said. “Our time with them tends to be longer than normal. We are wearing more hats. I feel like my listening skills have gotten better. Sometimes, I don’t have all the words. All I have is my listening ear and my presence.”

Compassion and connection

Just like many doctors these days, chaplains are getting used to the idea of telehealth — communicating with patients and families over the phone or through video chat, said the Rev. Okey Jude Uche, a Catholic chaplain at City of Hope in Duarte.

“With such communication, it can be challenging to tell what a person is feeling because it’s not face to face,” he said. “But this is an extraordinary and unprecedented time, and we’re learning and adapting. During this time, compassionate care is critical.”

Uche said he is covered from head to toe in personal protective equipment when he visits patients in the COVID-19 ward. He listens to them talk about loneliness and the frustration of not being able to hold a loved one’s hand. On a recent call, he talked to a woman who had contracted the virus.

“I reminded her about her connection to God,” he said. “I read passages from the scripture. The goal is to help her understand that God is always there and offer some comfort during a time of hopelessness.”

William O’Brien, chaplain at St. Joseph Hospital and St. Jude Medical Center in Orange, said he has been taking virtual webinars and classes that focus on how to deliver compassionate care during a pandemic.

“It’s affected us in ways you don’t even realize,” he said. “I’ve been talking to colleagues, other chaplains, and looking at best practices.”

What’s also unusual about the pandemic is that chaplains themselves are living through the fears and uncertainties that the rest of the community is facing.

“We’re all having to go through it together and, through that, there is a connection,” he said. “With COVID-19, there are so many disconnections. So anytime you do get a connection, you hang on to that.”

Providing comfort and hope

In addition to patients and families, hospital chaplains also have been ministering to doctors, nurses and other staff members who need that support. Father Miguel A. Urrea, who has served as Catholic chaplain at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton for 11 years, said he tries to check in with staff members on a daily basis.

“You get to know the staff and you see the changes in them,” he said. “We talk about how they are feeling, the frustrations they are experiencing. I’m just there to listen, not to give them solutions or tell them things are going change. We know that’s not going to happen for a while.”

Many people don’t see hospital staff the way he does, Urrea said.

“Many times I’ve seen a nurse or doctor who walk away from a patient, sit down and cry,” he said. “But they can’t show their emotions to patients or family members. They feel helpless, especially now, that they can’t do anything for family to come and see patients.”

Speaking to a chaplain at a time of hopelessness and uncertainty can be truly comforting, said Paloma Melendez, a 26-year-old artist and animator who is currently hospitalized at UC Irvine Medical Center for an autoimmune disorder.

“I asked for a chaplain because I felt like I was going crazy,” she said. “The chaplain was so attentive and so kind. It’s nice to get that element of care during these scary times.”

Melendez said she often seeks solace in art and the kindness of others.

“Chaplains show us that there is love and hope in this world,” she said. “Sometimes, it can be hard to remember that in these dire times.”

To view the original article, please visit the Orange County Register.
Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG