The highs and lows of chaplaincy during COVID-19

A pair of hands hoving over the keyboard of a laptop
 on October 1, 2020

The Rev. Canon Joanne Davies is the chaplain and spiritual care coordinator at St. John’s Rehab, part of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. St. John’s Rehab is dedicated to specialized rehabilitation. We asked her what it was like to provide spiritual care during the COVID-19 pandemic. This article was written in late August. 

Spiritual care at St. John’s Rehab is a ministry of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine. The Sisters value a genuinely caring relationship with patients, staff and visitors. But how do we live this value in a pandemic, when the ways in which we are present become diminished?

All worship services at St. John’s Rehab were cancelled. All my group activities were cancelled. Both will continue to be cancelled. By mid-March, the hospital decided it was the safest for the Sisters to stay in the convent. I miss their presence and company in this work.

All volunteers were told to stay home. I was alone. I cannot go between units. It has become particularly difficult to meet our new admissions amidst transmission concerns and to prevent crowding in the halls. I ask for referrals to visit new patients. Any patient may request to see me.

I learned how to introduce myself as warmly as possible while wearing a mask and face shield – and often a gown and gloves, too. I was pleased to receive requests to take several patients out for walks on our grounds. I pushed the wheelchairs up and down the paths, stopping in the gardens so we could talk. But as patients were discharged and new patients admitted, I was not receiving as many referrals or requests as I would have wanted – not out of disregard for my work but more from pandemic exhaustion.

Then, in the last weeks of March, I was asked if I would accept re-deployment as a screener, at our one open door.

I did this every afternoon. This meant I could meet everyone who came in the door, including new admissions. Families and friends arrived for scheduled visits or to leave food and clean clothing. I came to know patients who were well enough (and mobile enough) to go outside on their own. I worked with, and developed relationships with, staff members whom I otherwise would not have. Nurses shared with me how it felt to work when half the patients on a unit have COVID-19. I was able to greet people with a friendly welcome in difficult times. I realized the mask and the plexiglass barrier were making no difference to my sense of who I was as a chaplain.

I was called to an elderly patient who had been injured in a car accident. With no visitors, she was extremely unhappy. At St. John’s Rehab, new beginnings and new possibilities are among our goals. Isolation and unhappiness are barriers to this healing journey. St. John’s worked to establish “window visits” so patients and loved ones could see and hear each other. What this patient did not know was that her husband had died suddenly at home. That news could not be given through a window.

With PPE and physical distancing in place, her daughter was welcomed onto the unit and into her mother’s room to give her the news. I asked this patient afterwards if she and I might have a service of remembrance together in her room. A look of deep gratitude was all the response I needed.

A patient made a request to say prayers for a friend of his who is dying. The patient was blind and therefore confined to his bed-space. After prayer, he told me about feeling the shadow of depression. I took him outside and described the trees and the grounds. Experiencing his joy was a profound healing for both of us.

St. John’s has had only one outbreak between patients. All of our other patients with COVID-19 are admitted with the diagnosis and cared for with strict and safe protocols. Being in the hospital magnifies the fear and concerns of a pandemic. I feel helpless, as these patients cannot be visited. If the patient has a direct request, I visit using an iPad. Yet I heard clearly that patients are uncomfortable with the chaplain greeting them for the first time via an iPad. I now want to study and teach new skills for chaplaincy on devices.


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