Much has changed since COVID-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus SARA-CoV-2, was declared a global pandemic in March—including the suspension of in-person church services and social distancing and isolation measures for all Canadians. But some Anglicans who work in the healthcare field now find themselves on the front lines of this public health emergency. Among them are hospital chaplains and spiritual care providers who work in health facilities, nursing homes and hospital wards.
In order to give a picture of the challenges they face, the Anglican Journal reached out to spiritual health practitioners by email and asked each the following questions:
- What has working as a spiritual care provider been like during the COVID-19 pandemic? How is the virus affecting your place of work?
- What challenges to your work does COVID-19 present? Are you able to visit patients as usual? Do you have to wear protective equipment?
- What prayers do you have for this moment in time? How might people pray/rely on their faith in a time of emergency like this?
- Have your church and diocese been supportive during this time?
- What are some ways parishes/Anglicans can support spiritual care providers and other healthcare workers?
Responses have been edited for length and clarity. This story will be published in several installments.
Spiritual Care Associate,
Misericordia Health Centre
Winnipeg, Man. (Diocese of Rupert’s Land)
Working in the field of spiritual health during the pandemic has been challenging, to say the least. I think the biggest challenge has been the constant change and the unknown—not knowing what the next day is going to look like. It relates well to some of the concepts written about in the book from the Middle Ages called The Cloud of Unknowing, and learning to surrender our sense of control to God. This theme has come up repeatedly in my work with both health care staff, and the people in our care. Phrases like, “It’s all in God’s hands,” and “God’s in control,” were heard repeatedly from those trying to find meaning in the chaos.
Another big change in the health centre has been an increased focus on staff support. While we are always available to support staff when dealing with mental and spiritual crises, this has become a much bigger part of our work. We have implemented staff support circles on each unit, which encourage staff members to articulate their challenges and concerns about their circumstances. We have also partnered with other departments and organizations to bring staff support by way of written material (poetry, prayer, stories of hope, etc.), and more tangible supports such as hand-drawn flowers from the community for our “Garden of Gratitude” and distributing coupons for a free lunch.
From the residents’ point of view, the restriction on visitors has been the toughest part of the pandemic. Since mid-March, visitors have not been allowed into the facility, except on compassionate grounds for end of life. This has been devastating for some of our residents, who were used to daily or frequent visits from family members. This affects staff too, as we are dealing with residents that don’t always understand or remember these restrictions, and therefore place more demands on all of us.
Despite all the fear and uncertainty, there seems to be a sense of we’re in this together as people and units work together to make something work.
We have not had any known cases of COVID-19 in our facility, for which we are very thankful, but there has been a lot of work done in preparation for what might have happened, or what might still be to come. Surgery units were temporarily closed except for emergencies, and staff were re-deployed to other units that were still functioning. Much of our facility provides long-term care. We have a 100-bed personal care home, and a separate building with three floors of transitional care, and then several acute care units. Most of the acute care units closed down and were prepared to take on overflow from our major hospitals that would take in active COVID-19 patients.
“I think the biggest challenge has been the constant change and the unknown—not knowing what the next day is going to look like.”
We did not expect to take in active COVID-19 patients, although that plan might have changed, and there was always the possibility that an infected person might be admitted here without any symptoms. Because of this ever-present risk, we instituted several new protocols, like isolating new residents for 14 days before they could interact with other residents, and using PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] whenever we were on units. For a while, we were required to wear full mask, eye protection, gown and gloves when we entered these rooms, but these restrictions have been eased and we are now required to wear only masks and eye protection when we visit anyone—and of course wash our hands after every encounter! While spiritual care providers in hospital settings have been restricted from face-to-face visits with active COVID-19 cases, we have not had any at Misericordia, so we have not needed to implement that restriction.
There has been a flurry of online support from various faith and spiritual care groups. These groups have often sent prayers of support that have touched many in our facility. Just this past week, we received [a quote from Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen] that spoke of the difference between hope and optimism: “While optimism makes us live as if someday soon things will get better for us, hope frees us from the need to predict the future and allows us to live in the present, with deep trust that God will never leave us alone.” This speaks to something deep inside many of us, when we are facing scary situations and when our experience tells us that things might not get better—at least not for a long time. We can know that God will always be with us in the midst of any difficulty. God will help us through it.
My parish has included people in the front lines of health care in their intercessory prayers. I have also had several phone calls, emails and letters from other church members offering prayer and support.
We have a small Anglican Chaplains Group that meets a few times a year. We were recently invited to a Zoom meeting where we shared our challenges and offered support to one another. I was pleased to see Bishop [of the diocese of Rupert’s Land] Geoff Woodcroft at that virtual meeting. He offered us prayer and encouragement for our work, which was very meaningful to me.
You can’t overestimate the value of a well-timed phone call, card or email offering prayer and support. These can be from church leadership, but also from the membership at large. It’s a great way to keep in touch when so many of us are feeling isolated from our local parish, and friends.
Canon Edward Keeping
Diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador
At the Health Science Centre, St. John’s, NL, there are usually seven chaplains from different faith communities. Since the pandemic there are two chaplains, with a clinical visiting the patients. I, as the Anglican chaplain, am visiting on the 5th floor with about 40 to 45 patients per day. There are about 5 or 6 people daily in the HICVICU (heart patients) that I visit.
There are a larger number who are listed as wanting “No Pastoral Care.” The Roman Catholic chaplain is visiting patients on the 4th floor plus critical care units. The other chaplains are at other sites in the city or at home, waiting to be called in case a chaplain is affected by the virus. Our visiting now takes us to patients of many faith groups—that is the biggest change. There are times when the staff needs to talk about the fear we all have of the virus. Our weekend chaplain, Canon Iliffe Sheppard, is now visiting only at the Health Science Centre on Fridays and Saturdays, which are my days off to be refreshed and renewed. It is important that none of us burn out because of the situation we find ourselves in.
The challenges are visiting people of different faith communities and being a presence among them and listening to their concerns, especially around lack of family visiting.
The other challenge is that our other full-time chaplain, the Rev. David Pilling, is placed at a long-term care facility while the virus is among us and cannot visit in an acute care facility; therefore, I have to be on call for the other three hospitals if needed throughout the day or night. Rev. Pilling continues night pager duty at the long-term care facility.
The visiting of patients continues but on a larger scale. Now, we are required to wear face mask for every visit and, where necessary, to wear protective clothing.
“There are times when the staff needs to talk about the fear we all have of the virus.”
I have been noticing that my prayers are different because of [the patients’] faith/church. I pray with them as I listen to their concerns—like why they are here, fears around the virus, family concerns. The people I see are strong in their faith and trusting in God for their healing, and church community is a real part of their lives. Many express concerns for the church at this time and know things will not be the same.
The bishop and archdeacon of diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador have been very, very supportive of the ministry of the three Anglican chaplains.
Since the virus, the bishop and archdeacon have been meeting with us on teleconference or video meetings. As the coordinating chaplain for the diocese, I am keeping these two people informed of any changes from Eastern Health regarding chaplains’ role in the system. I am very thankful for the prayer support and chats during this difficult time throughout our diocese, especially from our bishop and archdeacon, and the many calls received from retired clergy and parish clergy wondering how I am doing.
The parish clergy cannot visit the hospitals as they have been doing in the past. We would appreciate prayers for the chaplains and the [front-line] workers in our health care system. Knowing that we are united in prayer at this time gives hope and strength. Pray for the sick in our homes and hospitals daily.
The Rev. Andreas Thiel
Chaplain, Huron Lodge Long Term Care Home
Windsor, Ont. (Diocese of Huron)
Ironically, my term as Chaplain (at Huron Lodge LTC in Windsor, Ontario) was supposed to end on March 31, but when the various stages of social distancing began to be put in place—including the end of family visits—I couldn’t bring myself to leave. In fact, my sense of call was intensified, and I wanted to be with the people who, in many ways, had become my “family”. It has been deeply gratifying to accompany the residents and staff in these difficult times.
Thankfully, we have had no cases of COVID-19 [at Huron Lodge] as of today, thanks to protective measures that were put in place early on. Huron Lodge is not privately operated; it is city-owned, and I believe for that reason, we had the benefit of appropriate resources and responsiveness to local Health Unit and provincial directives. Huron Lodge administration has been exceptional in providing frequent updates re: safety protocols, etc., as well as conveying sincere appreciation for all staff.
[There are a few] challenges: minor inconveniences such as face masks. This has made me aware of how important facial expressions and non-verbal cues are, especially to those who are hearing impaired. As a result, I find myself speaking slower and using simple language. I’m able to visit residents as usual. New residents (required to undergo a 14-day period of quarantine) require me to wear face mask, gloves (and as of today, optional protective face shield). Many of the residents live with a certain degree of dementia, meaning that they don’t necessarily understand what is happening, or why. Consequently, I find myself simply maintaining human connection with them: being present, and being attentive to where they want the conversation to go. I’ve also begun contacting some family members by phone, acknowledging that this time of forced separation is difficult for them as well.
“[Face masks have] made me aware of how important facial expressions and non-verbal cues are, especially to those who are hearing impaired.”
A favourite prayer of mine is based on Paul’s message in Romans 8:38-39—that absolutely nothing can separate us from God’s love. NOTHING!
I continue to serve as rector of my parish, [St. Matthew’s Anglican Church]. On a parish level, I’m not sure that everyone understands or appreciates the importance of what I do in my chaplaincy at Huron Lodge. I understand this, as I suspect that in these times parishioners have their own challenges to work through. My bishop has expressed his support for what I’m doing, and has reached out personally, inviting me to contact him for additional help or support, as needed.
I believe it would be beneficial for dioceses to offer chaplains/spiritual care providers periodic retreats (paid by the diocese). This would be a significant way of recognizing and honouring the unique ministry that we offer, as well as acknowledging the importance of self-care. The message conveyed would be: we value you, we support you, we wish to help you keep well.
Readers will be hearing from more spiritual care practitioners in the coming days.