Amid coronavirus deaths, Michigan hospital chaplains struggle to carry on

chaplain

For hospital chaplains, the new coronavirus also has rewritten how they can bring comfort and care to patients and their families. (Shutterstock)

They’re Catholic. Protestant. Jewish. Buddhist.

Each with their own faith and their own prayers, a dozen chaplains at Beaumont Hospital Royal Oak step into a daily battle with despair and death amid Michigan’s COVID-19 outbreak.

Sometimes that means walking a family up to a room just before their loved one’s death. It could be a conference call prayer at the bedside of a failing patient. Or a meditation session for a nurse burned out by one more shift where too many coronavirus patients died.

“It’s a very rough time,” Bridget Theodoroff, a chaplain at the suburban Detroit hospital since 2018, told Bridge Magazine. She came to hospital ministry after 11 years as a pastoral associate at a Macomb County Catholic church.

“The other day, I escorted a patient’s sister and the patient’s pastor and went up to  the room. On the way, the patient’s sister was telling me all the wonderful things that her sister did in her life to bring life and joy to others. The pastor said it was going to be a great loss for her church.

“There is this distance now that is heartbreaking,” said Beaumont Hospital Royal Oak chaplain Bridget Theodoroff. (Courtesy photo)

“And we walked together and cried together and prayed together on our way there.”

A few hours later, the patient died, becoming one of 459 COVID-19 deaths in the Beaumont Health hospital system as of Thursday.

By and large, Theodoroff said, “I hold it together at work.”

But on her 40-minute drive home, she sometimes lets go, as she cries to herself over events and boundaries she is powerless to change.

At hospitals around Michigan, COVID-19 has dictated new rules for front-line health care workers. Protective gear including gowns, masks and face shields are standard issue in the intensive care unit.

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But for those standing just behind that front line – the chaplains – it’s also rewritten how they can bring comfort and care to patients and their families.  And it’s put new weight on pastoral staff to minister to nurses and doctors at their emotional brink.

“There is this distance now that is heartbreaking,” Theodoroff said. “There is this desire to put our arms around somebody, but even through all this we can’t resort to how we normally comfort people.”

Before COVID-19, hospital chaplains were often at a patient’s side along with family at their final hours of life.

Now, across the state, chaplains are kept out of wards with COVID patients as a precaution against its spread. Families are barred from visiting coronavirus patients as well, except for hospital-sanctioned end-of-life visits.

That poses obvious challenges to the work of hospital ministry.

“We are going to meet the need. We just have to do it differently,” said Deborah Damore, director of spiritual care at Beaumont Hospital Royal Oak. “We are doing things now that weren’t required before.”

In one example, Charles Sadler, a Presbyterian chaplain at the Royal Oak hospital, recalled an overnight shift he worked a few weeks ago.  He learned the family of a faltering coronavirus patient wished to pray together and voice their support.

Deborah Damore

Deborah Damore, director of spiritual care at Beaumont Hospital Royal Oak, says of her chaplain staff: “They are people of faith, but that doesn’t mean they are immune.” (Courtesy photo)

They were Catholic, Sadler recalled, and they wanted their priest to participate. So Sadler arranged a four-way call through the hospital's conference call system – himself, standing outside the intensive care unit, the priest at his home, family members at home and a nurse holding a phone near the patient.

Through the phone, Sadler heard recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary Prayer.

“It was a multiple-generation family,” he recalled. “They were able to share their love with the patient, tell him how much they loved him. They were saying, ‘God is going to be with you for this.’ ‘We have been praying for you.’”

“It felt very meaningful.”

At Detroit Medical Center, Portia Lockett directs seven chaplains, where their work is as much about support for front-line health care workers as for patients and their families.

“A lot of our caregivers are very nervous,” Lockett said. “You hear people say, ‘I’m sleeping in my car [to protect my family from infection].’”

As of earlier this week, nearly 3,000 people employed by southeast Michigan health care systems had symptoms of COVID-19 or positive tests for the coronavirus. That included about 1,500 in the Beaumont Health system who were off work with symptoms or positive tests for COVID-19. About 500 of them were nurses.

Lockett

“None of us can make promises,” said Portia Lockett, who directs chaplain ministry at Detroit Medical Center. “All we can do is hope.” (Courtesy photo)

Lockett said she hears a range of outpourings from hospital staff. I can’t go on. Why does God allow this? I’m afraid for my family.

Amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Lockett said, the hospital’s ministry boils down to a tenet of any faith.

“Something I hear a lot is that I need to know that everything is going to be all right. None of us can make promises. All we can do is hope.”

Lockett has had to live those words. Earlier this month, Lockett’s oldest sister died in a Detroit hospital of COVID-19. Like members of other grieving families across Michigan, Lockett wasn’t able to see her failing relative before she died. 

“You know what? I am just holding on to the wonderful memories we shared together,” Lockett said. “And I know she’s at peace and doesn’t have to suffer anymore.”

Lockett said her staff makes a habit of reaching out to these workers, who may not always ask for help.

“We make the rounds in units every day. We simply go up to them and ask them, ‘How are you today?’ ‘What can I do for you today?’ Sometimes they say they just need to vent.”

Lockett said the hospital provides “decompression rooms” for health care workers, where they can sit amid soft music or write on a board how they are feeling.

“If they want to meet alone, they can meet in our office or somewhere else where we can talk,” she said.

Wendy Blackwell, an intensive care nurse at Beaumont Hospital Royal Oak, reached out to chaplain staff about three weeks ago. “When COVID-19 hit, it was just craziness,” Blackwell said. “It was unlike anything we had seen before and there was a lot of death and a lot unknowns.”

She joined a chaplain in a one-on-one meditation session in a small break room.

“I was bawling my eyes out, it hit me so deeply,” Blackwell said.

“I had just seen a lot of things that were overwhelming to the senses and to the emotions. This is hard for everybody. It’s really important to have a way to connect with your emotional self and your spiritual self.”

Beaumont’s Damore said she knows the waves of grief and loss exact a toll on the chaplain staff as well. Once or twice a week, she gathers as many chaplain staff as can make it in a large room where they each sit at least six feet apart.

 “We have prayers of hope and encouragement,” Damore said. “We pray for the patients that are here and for all the leadership and staff. We stay until everyone is done and people have had the opportunity to share what they share.”

 And then they get back to work.

 “They are people of faith, but that doesn’t mean they are immune,” Damore said. “It does mean we have a strength that is greater than ourselves. We are all very clear that none of us have the answers, but we serve someone who does.”

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