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Hospital chaplains: How do you touch suffering families when COVID-19 denies proximity?

As hospitals face spiraling COVID-19 caseloads that have created locked down health centers, families aren’t the only ones prevented from visiting patients in crisis. COVID has changed the way hospital chaplains bring comfort to patients, families and hospital staff in times of need.

Veteran hospital chaplain the Rev. Dr. Sharyon Cosey talks to a patient being discharged over the New Year’s weekend at Mount Sinai Hospital on the West Side. Spiraling COVID-19 caseloads that have locked down hospitals have changed the way these mostly unnoticed hospital ministers bring comfort to patients, families and hospital staff. Cosey, pastor of ABBA Church of Renewed Faith in Far South Side Beverly, has been a hospital chaplain for nearly 13 years.
Veteran hospital chaplain the Rev. Dr. Sharyon Cosey talks to a patient being discharged over the New Year’s weekend at Mount Sinai Hospital on the West Side. Spiraling COVID-19 caseloads that have locked down hospitals have changed the way these mostly unnoticed hospital ministers bring comfort to patients, families and hospital staff. Cosey, pastor of ABBA Church of Renewed Faith in Far South Side Beverly, has been a hospital chaplain for nearly 13 years.
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During many a hospital stay with my medically fragile son, they were there.

I was first introduced to the job of hospital chaplain when one strolled into my son’s room at the former Children’s Memorial Hospital, an unexpected and welcome prayer partner.

By the time my son had aged out of Children’s to his new hospital home at NorthShore University HealthSystem, I was regularly requesting a chaplain upon admission.

The job is one of proximity, a hand on your shoulder, the soft pat on your back, tangible silence during tears and soothing prayers from a stranger who quickly becomes family, hovering with you bedside over a loved one or sharing deep conversation in uncomfortable hospital room chairs.

When spiraling COVID-19 caseloads created lockdowns at hospitals nationwide, loved ones weren’t the only ones prevented from visiting patients in crisis. COVID also changed the way these mostly unnoticed hospital ministers bring comfort and consolation to patients, their families and hospital staff in need.

“With the CDC saying there was indication people could spread this disease much more virulently, we knew right at the very beginning of the shutdown that we didn’t want to have people going from one place to another throughout the hospital,” said Dennis Ryan, vice president of external affairs for Sinai Health System, who oversees all pastoral care.

Sinai includes four hospitals, 17 community clinics, a community institute and a nationally recognized research institute on Chicago’s West and Southwest sides. The hospitals, Mount Sinai, Sinai Children’s, Holy Cross and Schwab Rehabilitation hospitals, are all covered by chaplains within the health system’s pastoral care department.

“It was also very, very clear to me that over half of our chaplains had age and preexisting conditions making them susceptible to the virus as they visited various units all over the hospital, from E.R. to the mother-baby unit, code blues and patients in between,” Ryan said.

So Sinai Health System did something once unimaginable: took pastoral care virtual.

Joining the trend in nearly every sector of pandemic life, hospital chaplains now bring commiseration to patients, families and staff via phone or Zoom, not just at Sinai, but across the country.

“I made a decision that everybody would do phone calls only, and as a result, we could be available 24-7 for all our hospitals, so that whenever patients, a family or caregiver or doctor or nurse wanted to talk to someone, they could pick up the phone at any time,” Ryan said.

“It’s less personal, but it has meant there’s always someone available, even if it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. A lot of hospitals ended up doing the exact same thing.”

Dennis Ryan, Vice President of Mission Effectiveness and External Affairs for Sinai Health Systems, oversees the pastoral care program for the network that serves West and Southwest Side Chicago communities through four hospitals, 17 community clinics, a community institute and nationally recognized research institute.
Dennis Ryan, vice president of mission effectiveness and external affairs for Sinai Health Systems, oversees the pastoral care program for the network that serves West and Southwest Side Chicago communities through four hospitals, 17 community clinics, a community institute and a nationally recognized research institute.
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But how do you counsel, really counsel, the patient who has just received bad news?

Or a mother agonizing over her child, as was the challenge to that first chaplain encountered at Children’s Memorial?

What of the family desperately awaiting results of a difficult treatment or surgery?

And the COVID-19 patient? How do you support the one alert, scared and alone?

Or the family of that COVID patient on a ventilator, loved ones unable to visit, anxious for an encouraging word from doctors and nurses too swamped for long conversations?

“It was a big difference for me and the other chaplains, when we could no longer be in physical connection and interaction with patients and family members because of COVID,” said the Rev. Dr. Sharyon Cosey, a chaplain the past four years at Mount Sinai Hospital.

“As the CDC guidelines changed, the way we interacted changed over time. At first, families could come to the hospital, then no families were allowed unless there were extenuating circumstances. We had to switch to phone visits and those type of things, and learn how to minister to people using methods you ordinarily would not find necessary.”

A hospital chaplain for 13 years, Cosey is pastor of the non-denominational ABBA Church of Renewed Faith in Beverly, part of the International Council of Community Churches. Previously a chaplain at University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital on the South Side for 812 years, she joined the staff of this Level 1 trauma hospital on the West Side in 2017.

The Rev. Dr. Sharyon Cosey, pastor of ABBA Church of Renewed Faith in the Far South Side Beverly neighborhood, has been a chaplain for nearly 13 years, 8 1⁄2 years at University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital on the South Side, and the last four at Mount Sinai Hospital on the West Side.
The Rev. Dr. Sharyon Cosey, pastor of ABBA Church of Renewed Faith in the Far South Side Beverly neighborhood, has been a chaplain for nearly 13 years, 8 1⁄2 years at University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital on the South Side and the last four at Mount Sinai Hospital on the West Side.
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“As a chaplain, our job is to be present with a patient or family member when they’re going through some type of traumatic experience in their life, to give them hope, to be a spiritual presence, for as long as necessary,” Cosey said.

“And that can run a gamut of things. If you have 20 different people, they may have 20 different needs. Whether it may be prayer, or to cry and scream, or to try to get in touch with God, you try to meet those needs. Virtual was a challenge. But at the end of it all, you find you still are somehow able to connect with people. A lot of chaplaincy is listening.”

Cosey taught junior high English for 3212 years in the Chicago Public Schools, most of those years at Carter Elementary in Washington Park, before she discerned a calling.

Retiring from CPS in 2005, she received her second master’s degree from Chicago Theological Seminary in 2007, and founded her church while working at Comer’s.

Later receiving her doctorate from McCormick Theological Seminary, she is a board certified chaplain through the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC), the national standards bearer for ministers in health and human services.

She keeps up with her peers navigating remote pastoral care at hospitals across the country through APC support groups where members share challenges of this pivot spurred by a disease that has killed more than 350,200 Americans, and infected over 20.4 million.

“APC has a support group that meets regularly, via Zoom, and you do hear about what’s going on at other hospitals, and the challenges chaplains throughout the country are going through,” said Cosey, of Bronzeville, who is married, with two children.

“What is going on for me and others is you gain kind of a sixth sense. Because you know, emotions are not touchable. You feel emotions. And that’s something a lot of us had to hone in on, asking, ‘How do I touch a person when I can’t touch their shoulder?’ ”

During the initial COVID-19 surge last spring, Mount Sinai Hospital, at 15th Street and California Avenue on the West Side, was one of many hospitals that set up tents and triage areas on their grounds to conduct coronavirus testing.
During the initial COVID-19 surge last spring, Mount Sinai Hospital, at 15th Street and California Avenue on the West Side, was one of many hospitals that set up tents and triage areas on their grounds to conduct coronavirus testing.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

“People are looking for something that’s not physical, something they can hold onto. A lot of us, including myself, had to learn to ‘see’ that person without physically seeing them, to be able to connect with them spiritually, over the phone,” she said.

“You can listen to them on the phone or through Zoom or Facebook Live, and you can still come up with words and whatever it is you need to connect with that person, even if it’s not in the physical. The skills do not change. It’s just a different way of offering that connection.”

Born of crisis, the upside to remote pastoral care has been the ability of hospitals to provide that round-the-clock coverage Ryan spoke of — as COVID cases and deaths spiked.

“The priority is to keep everybody as safe as possible. If we lost any chaplains, either through sickness or death, it’s not like you have a phalanx of people who are trained as a chaplain,” he noted.

“And quite honestly, with COVID, the doctors and nurses and respiratory therapists were so busy that they didn’t have time to spend a whole lot of time with families on the phone, whereas the chaplain could. We know this is totally different. But it is working.”

Like most hospitals, Sinai hires diverse denominations among its pastoral care staff.

As for myself, I’ve welcomed prayers at my fragile son’s bedside from ministers Catholic and Presbyterian, Episcopal and evangelical, and non-denominational, like Cosey, who stresses the hospital chaplain’s job leaves church and religion at that hospital room door.

“I’m just being a servant of God. You can encounter patients and families who don’t believe in God or are angry with God, and I’m not there to evangelize or proselytize. I’m there to be a listening presence. That’s the difference between a chaplain and other pastors,” she said.

“It reminds me of the story of a little boy who lived next door to an older man to whom he was close. One day, his mother said, ‘Johnny, Mrs. Jones died.’ And he said, ‘Oh no! Can I go next door?’ She said, ‘Well, OK, but don’t stay too long.’ He said, ‘I won’t.’

“But he was there for a long time, returning just as she was getting worried and about to come get him. ‘I thought I told you not to stay too long,’ she said. ‘But I was helping him,’ the boy replied. ‘Helping him do what?’ she asked. ‘I was helping him cry.’ That’s what chaplains do.”