ST. PETERSBURG — The men and women whose spiritual care has been a quiet presence in hospitals, nursing homes and other medical facilities are now on the front lines of a historic public health battle.
“One of the reasons spiritual care providers are so much on the forefront right now is because the issues that people are struggling with right now are spiritual issues, issues of existential fear, disruption of normal patterns of relationships and finding sources of hope,” said Jim Andrews, director of spiritual care for Suncoast Hospice.
Chaplains listen and pray, offer comfort and encouragement. They are vital emissaries. But in a time of social distancing, they are constrained by masks and often unable to offer a supportive touch.
“One of our primary identities is as caregivers,” said Eric Ayala, a resident chaplain at Tampa General Hospital. Trying to fulfill that role within coronavirus restrictions “feels against the grain," he said.
So chaplains have turned to old and new methods to do their jobs, from a simple hospital telephone to communicate with an isolated patient to the latest in teleconferencing to facilitate family connections.
“Oftentimes, chaplains are the only people who are there for a non-medical reason. We still have that," said Laura Smith, a staff chaplain at Tampa General. “It’s more complicated with COVID patients. Many of them are in rooms with glass doors. For the ones that are alert, we can see each other, but we can’t be in each other’s physical presence.”
BayCare Health System stopped most patient visitors on March 21. Chaplains are allowed to visit patients and call families with updates. They also can help to arrange virtual visits with families using FaceTime or other online apps.
“One of the bigger challenges is the patients who are in isolation,” said Colleen Walters, vice president of mission and ethics with BayCare Health. Chaplains aren’t “gowning up” to visit isolated patients, she said, because the hospitals are preserving vital personal protective equipment for medical staff. Chaplains remain outside rooms and communicate with patients by phone or with iPads.
For patients who are isolated, chaplains provide the comfort of “knowing that they have the opportunity to converse with someone, to know that they are not alone,” Walters said.
Terri Peterson is a Suncoast Hospice spiritual care provider. The term “chaplain,” believed to be less inclusive, was dropped a few years ago.
She provides comfort to Anne Caridi, 98, a hospice patient, and to her daughter, Rosalee Yurasko, and Rosalee’s husband, Frank, as the three self-isolate in their Seminole home.
“Now is the time when so many folks are stressed and socially isolated," said Yurasko, who praised Peterson for her care. "I think the social distancing also leads to depression, and with what’s on TV, you lose hope. And you know that all those things, especially in the older population, lead to physical ailments.
“When somebody comes in and calms you and at the same time lifts your spirits, and sometimes adds a little religion, it elevates your mind, body and soul.”
Now in her fourteenth year as a chaplain, Peterson sometimes has to visit patients these days by phone.
Even when they do see patients in person, they take precautions.
“We wear masks. Depending on what’s going on, we might wear a gown,” she said.
Suncoast Hospice has created a tele-health program, leveraging technology to serve their patients’ medical and social service needs, Andrews said. Sometimes that means talking by phone, using iPads or turning to such platforms as Zoom. Spiritual care coordinators have found creative ways to connect with patients, he said, by sending voice mails, inspirational readings, encouragement or prayers through a hospice nurse.
Rabbi Aaron Lever, director of spiritual care at Menorah Manor in St. Petersburg, said he has been striving to create a sense of normalcy for the nursing home’s elderly residents. Before the shutdown, the center saw about 150 visitors a day, and families came for the weekly Shabbat dinner. About two weeks ago, employees began wearing masks.
“They can’t see their family, and now they are surrounded by everyone wearing masks,” Lever said.
Some residents find the changes disconcerting, he said. He has been encouraging them "to still experience a sense of joy and purpose in the middle of all of this.”
They no longer can attend services in Menorah Manor’s synagogue, but they can watch the service in their rooms on closed-circuit TV. And they can have virtual visits with their families using laptop computers.
The responsibilities of chaplains include supporting one another. The Rev. Wayne Maberry, director of spiritual health and education at Tampa General, pays close attention his chaplains.
“I watch and make sure I know how they’re doing, just to make sure they are doing well as caregivers," he said. "I know sometimes we can exhaust ourselves in giving care to others.”
Tampa General’s chaplains find time during their morning meeting to share a poem, reading, prayer or some type of inspiration to start the day.
“I draw a lot of strength from my colleagues,” said Smith. She also is focused on the need to support the extended hospital staff.
“This is hard on all the staff, for a number of reasons — the visitations, showing up at work at a time when most people are staying home, the unknown part of all of this, all of these reasons. But we are particularly cognizant of the staff caring for COVID patients,” she said.
Smith said she worked during Hurricane Irma, but called this “a different type of crisis.”
“It’s challenging because of the unknown,” she said. "We don’t know how long it is going to last. Is there going to be a surge here?
“My general hope is that this is a season, and seasons come and go.”