Visitors to the University of Alberta Hospital were severely restricted at the height of the pandemic. Photo by Lincoln Ho

Hospital chaplains: First ... and last responders

By  Andrew Ehrkamp, Canadian Catholic News
  • June 26, 2020

EDMONTON -- The call came from the intensive care unit at the University of Alberta Hospital. The patient had a presumptive case of the COVID-19 virus. He was hurting in body and in spirit. And he was alone.

The nurses asked Sr. Pilar Valdes, the hospital chaplain, not to go inside the patient’s room. No family were present, in part because of restrictions to prevent the virus spread. Just pray outside the glass door. And then, in midst of a busy hospital floor, there was a pause.

“I prepared myself for prayers and I noticed that everybody was getting quiet,” recalled Valdes, a member of the Ursulines of Jesus.

“All the nurses, doctors and even the person who was cleaning outside went quiet and bowed their heads. We were one at that moment praying for that person and also for the family, because that person was all by himself,” Valdes said. “I was amazed by the reverence of the staff. Everyone was in silence for a moment. That moment was very sacred. I believe that all of us were just one.

“We see over time that people heal, not only in their body but in the spirit side of them.”

There have been more than 7,500 COVID-19 cases in Alberta and deaths have topped 150.

Many dozens had to be hospitalized, some in intensive care, which have put hospital chaplains on the frontlines of response to the pandemic. We know the first responders — police officers, firefighters and paramedics — who act when the body needs healing in a crisis. Chaplains are the first responders to the healing of the spirit. And they are the last responders when a patient is dying, providing them with prayers, comfort or the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

COVID-19 has changed hospital chaplains personally and professionally.

“There’s not, in my lived experience, been anything like this,” said Fr. Jim Corrigan, who has been doing hospital chaplaincy work through his 16 years as a priest, including during the SARS crisis in 2008.

Valdes sees the COVID-19 crisis as a teaching moment.

“I think it’s a big experience for all of us as people,” she said. “After this, we’ll have a new world. We’ll know how to take care of the other in a more conscious way. I think it’s a big lesson that I’m learning and the whole world is learning.”

In preparation for the pandemic, the Archdiocese of Edmonton Office of Pastoral Care assembled and dispatched an on-call team of seven priests for chaplaincy work at the hospital, in addition to religious sisters, lay people and permanent chaplains.

Each of them — including Archbishop Richard Smith — received training not only in personal protective equipment and COVID-19 protocol, but also preparation for what they might encounter when they walk through the hospital’s sliding doors.

Like anyone in the hospital setting, the chaplains follow protocols of distancing, sanitizing and wearing a surgical gown and facemask, depending on the patient.

The chaplains are there to provide spiritual healing as part of a team, that includes God Himself.

“I trust. I’m a woman of faith. I’m a consecrated woman. I’m a sister because I believe that God is with me,” Valdes said. “I never go to work by myself. God is with me. I let my patients know that God is with them. God will never abandon them. God is journeying with them in their struggle, in their loneliness now that a patient is not able to have their family here. We are the face of God there.”

The chaplains talk to patients. They pray with them. They listen to their stories and they are a compassionate presence, if only for a brief time. Sometimes they arrange for phone calls with family. Especially in the time of COVID, when visitors are barred, there’s palpable fear and anxiety — and loneliness.

“It’s the fear that all of us have, but now especially, the families are not able to be with the people. They’re struggling with a lot of loneliness and that brings a lot of emotion,” Valdes said. “People talk. People cry. I can see that not having a family member there is quite sad, but they understand it’s for the well-being of all of us, themselves and people who work in the hospital.”

The chaplains say their healing remedy is the hope that God provides even when they’re sometimes asked the tough question: Where is God in the middle of this worldwide crisis?

“I make them feel that God is not in the bad. God is always in the good,” Valdes said.

COVID-19 has changed spiritual care of patients not only when they’re sick but also when they’re dying and ask for the Anointing of the Sick. Hospital restrictions mean that priests can only attend in near-death circumstances. Nothing that goes into a patient’s room can come out. The prayers are written on a slip of paper that’s left behind. And instead of a stock of oil for the anointing, the oil is at the end of a Q-Tip.

“The efficacy of the sacrament hasn’t changed at all, but the way we administer it has been tightened up pretty much,” Corrigan said. “It’s one of the most important ministries that a priest can be involved in because very often you’re involved with people at a very vulnerable stage in their lives.”

Each call is cloaked in grief. And COVID-19 restrictions can mean that a patient is in the hospital dying without family, and only a priest present to provide Anointing of the Sick. Beautiful and painful, it’s Corrigan’s favourite sacrament.

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, the call for chaplains as the “last responders” is as critical as at any other time.

“I have the opportunity to bring hope and grace to this individual, to this family, and that’s the blessing here,” Corrigan said. “It’s not us. It’s that we can bring the Lord to people at the most difficult moments in their lives.”

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