In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our doctors, nurses and other caregivers are rightfully getting plenty of exposure for their heroism and tireless courage in the fight against the disease.
But one group that hasn't been in the discussion is hospital chaplains, who often spend nearly as much time with patients and families in crisis as clinicians.
A chaplain's role is to help patients and their families through an extremely difficult time by providing counseling and support, often in the form of physical touch. We seek to help patients face their fear by recognizing and validating it, letting them know it's OK to be afraid.
We focus on the joy and strength in their lives, finding ways to help them through their pain and fear. For some people, that's God. For others, it's their pets, their art or their work. But the most difficult part is that for almost everyone, it's family.
But during COVID-19, chaplains have a new challenge: When a patient can't be visited by their loved ones, who are their source of strength, how can we fill that void? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers.
At Orlando Health Dr. P. Phillips Hospital, my strategy has been to continue validating those feelings. I tell my patients that it's OK to be mad. It's OK to be angry. It's OK to feel whatever feelings they have. We don't provide platitudes like, "Let go of your anger" or "God will only give you what you can handle." They don't tend to help.
So much of my job is about connections and touch—holding hands, embracing after a prayer, a consoling touch on the shoulder—and that has been made nearly impossible by the virus as well. We read their emotions through patients' bodies, and we can't do that right now. At least not in person.
Instead, we must be creative and adaptable. It's important to remember that there are still ways of helping our patients, as long as we're willing to make the effort to not let patients feel isolated and alone.
Often, a remarkable patient story is the best way to remind ourselves what we're still capable of.
Last month, we had a COVID-19 patient in his 40s who was intubated. He was receiving a treatment called proning, which involves patients being flipped on their stomachs while intubated, meaning he couldn't speak. We feared the worst.
We had been speaking with the man's wife, and finally had the capability to connect her to him via iPad. I remember her asking tearfully, 'Am I really going to see him?' And it was a great feeling to tell her she would.
After we passed the iPad to his nurse through a cracked door, the man's wife and children were able to speak to him. Even though he couldn't respond, his nurse told us it was the best thing we could have done for him. His wife said she was given strength just by seeing him.
The next day, doctors removed his breathing tube, and we connected them again. This time, the patient was able to open his eyes to see his wife. I won't forget hearing her scream in happiness.
Against the odds, the man pulled through, and was home the next month for his child's birthday. I still tear up thinking of his story and the strength he and his family showed.
This is just one example of how we can still achieve our goals. I prefer using a tablet computer, where people can see each other. But we can also connect through phones, windows and more.
In fact, another of my most powerful interactions came when I was speaking to a patient through a window. He was afraid and crying, and I simply put my hand on the window. He raised his hands in the air and cried in a gut-wrenching moment.
In this challenging time, it can be difficult to find silver linings. But even in interactions with hospital staff, chaplains are reminded of their importance.
Over the past several weeks, doctors and other clinicians who would previously say hello in passing have stopped me and told me what a hard time they're having, asking if they can talk through their feelings or express some of their sadness.
Those caregivers are scared, too, and they're realizing that they need to talk just like their patients do.
Many of them felt called by God to pursue their careers, and now they feel that they're neglecting their families while being forced to live apart from them—sleeping on the couch, in the guest room or in a hotel.
When we talk it through, it can be a good feeling to know that those doctors are willing to take advantage of what we're there for. And if there's anything good to come out of this, it's been a true blessing to watch relationships formed with colleagues, patients and others blossom.