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'It is utterly heartbreaking': The role of a hospital chaplain during the Covid-19 pandemic

“Wherever chaplains are, whether at the bedside or the other end of a video camera, it is about connecting people.”

Image: Shutterstock/Chinnapong

CHAPLAINS IN SOME of Dublin’s hospitals have described their experience providing care to people at the end of their lives and helping bereaved families of Covid-19 patients. 

There are 36 ordained and 40 lay chaplains in different healthcare facilities across Dublin. Their job is to provide a range of services including visits to patients, pastoral care and bereavement support to families of those who have died.  

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, priests and lay chaplains have continued to minister to the sick and the bereaved in challenging circumstances. 

Three chaplains have discussed what this time has been like for them. 

Shauna Sweeney, Chaplain, Tallaght University Hospital

Sweeney said that seeing patients “having to go through this unthinkable ordeal is heartbreaking”.

“Patients have not seen their family in weeks and feel isolated and lonely. Families are at home waiting to hear from the hospital and feel helpless. Staff are dealing with extremely stressful situations that change every day,” she said.  

“As a chaplain in such an unusual time, it is my role to try and support patients and staff in the hospital and to make space for them to share their fears. 

It is extremely harrowing to see what patients and families are going through with this pandemic. Typically families would be with their loved ones morning, noon and night but that cannot be the case now.

She described a situation recently where a young man was dying. His wife and brother came in to say their final goodbyes to him.

“I facilitated the visit with them, they had 15 minutes to see him and say goodbye as they would never see him again,” Sweeney said. 

“They were surrounded by people with masks, goggles, hair nets, and no faces to see. This alone put so much fear with them and they too were instructed to wear the full PPE. It is utterly heartbreaking. The reality of the current situation feels inhumane and not what we as carers are used to. 

“Staff and volunteers in the hospital have crocheted pairs of love hearts that fit in the palm of the hand – a set. When I met with the wife and brother of this patient, I gave them one love heart to put into his hand, knowing that he would have something of theirs and I gave them the matching heart, to always have to show their son and to know that he was not alone.” 

Father Damian O Reilly, St. Vincent’s Hospital 

O’Reilly said that working in St Vincent’s Hospital at the moment is “one of the most challenging and amazing experiences” of his life so far.

“To be working alongside health care professionals and all the staff of the hospital is truly a very humbling experience – one of care, kindness and compassion from all the staff and departments who are working very closely together to ensure that the best possible patient care of the highest standard is provided to each patient.

He said the hospital chaplaincy team provide “vital” pastoral and spiritual support to families and patients, particularly at the moment when families can’t be with their dying loved ones due to coronavirus restrictions. 

O’Reilly said his duties as a chaplain have changed a bit recently as he is restricted from doing regular pastoral rounds on the wards.

Like all who are working on the front line at this time the support and the prayers of the public is very much appreciated, as hospital chaplains the support and prayers of the Archbishop the priest and religious and lay faithful of the Diocese is a great source of strength and for that support.

Fr John Kelly, Chaplain, Tallaght University Hospital

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Kelly said his role as a hospital chaplain has been challenged and changed due to Covid-19 restrictions on interactions and personal contact.

“Wherever chaplains are, whether at the bedside or the other end of a video camera, it is about connecting people,” he said.   

Kelly described an incident on Holy Thursday recently where he visited a 91-year-old woman named Ann who was diagnosed with Covid-19. 

“Ann had not spoken to her only brother since she was hospitalised. I connected Ann to her brother and they had a conversation which turned out to be her last as she died peacefully a short time later.” 

The next day, Kelly visited another patient named Mary who he had previously been in contact with while she was being treated for cancer. 

She recognised my voice behind the protective mask and goggles.  Having listened to her fears and sense of isolation I was able to connect her by Zoom to her husband and two sons. This was the last time they were able to see and hear their mother’s voice.   

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin has asked people to pray for people who are ill, those who have died and the families and friends who are grieving at the moment. 

“We are in a difficult situation and one that will not see its end for some time. We are being asked to take very restrictive measures. We are obliged to respond with a sense of personal responsibility and civic duty,” he said.

“Our sacrifices are overshadowed when we think of the great commitment of our public health services, especially our nurses, doctors, public health officials and carers. We owe them all a debt of gratitude.”

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