Hospital Chaplains Using Technology in Powerful Ways to Minister to Patients and their Families
By Lindsay Peyton - En Español
Hospital chaplains offer comfort, not only to patients but also to families and medical staff. Their job is to make people feel less alone and more spiritually connected as they approach a difficult surgery, await a diagnosis or journey to the end of life. Chaplains also provide encouragement for doctors and nurses who serve countless hours at work. That responsibility can be a challenge now more than ever – with everything at a distance. Chaplains from the Texas Annual Conference are finding creative ways to provide spiritual care, even at a time when they are not allowed to be in the same room.
“As chaplains, we walk into the hard places,” chaplain Stacy Auld, director of spiritual care and education at Houston Methodist Hospital, said. “There are obviously more hard places these days. What we’re doing has not changed, but there’s a greater need for it.”
In some ways, Auld said, her duties and those of her staff have remained the same. “But we’ve had to shift modalities, which is what the church has also had to do,” she said. “We’re working now with people digitally.”
At first, when Houston started to shut down, Auld wondered whether chaplains would be considered essential. She knew that she considered her work necessary – and soon learned that the city did too.
Still, measures had to be taken to protect patients and staff in the face of a mounting pandemic. “There are still chaplains in the hospital, but we have to shift how we do things,” Auld said.
For example, personal protective gear is in short supply. “We know that’s on ration right now,” Auld said. “We still have to offer spiritual support, but we need to reserve the PPEs.”
Confident that the Holy Spirit is not confined by chaplains physically being in the room, she sought ways to still “be there” with the most isolated patients.
In the ICU, for instance, new technology allows video monitoring. Auld said now, this “virtual ICU,” allows doctors and family members to access patients through their television screens, which become more like computer monitors. “It’s a two-way dialogue,” Auld said.
Doctors can check on patients without going into the room, as can loved ones. Chaplains are using the technology to talk to patients, and also to offer end-of-life rituals and prayers. Family members can be present on the television screen the whole time.
At the hospitals in general, there is also a zero-visitor policy. “You have all of these people in the hospital with no one with them,” Auld said.
Chaplains use the phone to connect with patients, and they also dial up family members every other day. Usually, the family connects only through physician and nurse calls – who are often rushed to accomplish the task, Auld explained.
“They just don’t have the time to give everyone an update of what’s going on,” she said.
That’s where the chaplains come in. “It’s a lifeline to the families,” Auld said. “And it lets them know that someone is checking on their loved ones.”
While chaplains primarily focus on patients and their families, helping medical staff is also a major part of their work. The level of anxiety has been high lately, Auld said. She is able to offer them prayer, a sounding board and even a respite in the hospital chapel.
“We were already living in a time where there was a lot of physician and nurse burnout,” Auld said.
As director, Auld also serves as chaplain to the chaplains. Every day, instead of their usual team huddle, they have a Zoom call with an upbeat message or reflection. “I’m trying to set the tone for the day,” she said.
Auld explained there is a collective grief lately. A lot of people have lost someone or know someone who has. Everyone has lost their normal way of life, their routines.
“We’ve all lost something,” Auld said. “As chaplains, our job is to walk alongside people who are grieving, and every single one of us is grieving in one way or another. Every single person is being touched by this pandemic.”
The chaplains also provide “Tea for the Soul,” a rolling cart with portable kettles, hot tea, chocolate, snacks, prayer requests and music. They can place the mobile tea shop in break rooms for nurses to enjoy. “They get to sit down and get some respite,” she said. “There are things we can do to help them alleviate stress.”
In Florida, Jenny Lannom, director of spiritual care at Tallahassee Memorial Health Care, has a similar way to lift nurses’ spirits, called a “Code Lavender.”
Lannom, an ordained elder in the TAC who was appointed to the regional hospital, said the Code Lavender cart is stocked with teas, chocolate, colored pencils, coloring sheets and snacks. She stands at the ready to deploy the cart to help nurses find a bit of solace.
“When you walk into a room with purple tablecloths, sharped colored pencil, a mandala ready to color, it doesn’t take any time at all for people to get into that mode,” Lannom said.
Medical workers rarely take breaks at all. “To have them engage in self-care, I don’t even have to words for it,” she said. “I’m grateful that we can do this for them. It helps them keep going for another four hours. It’s just knowing someone cared enough to show up and set the table for them.”
Lannom loves to hear the nurses laugh and chat, de-stressing over a cup of tea. “I call it mystery,” she said. “I don’t know how it works, but it does. People feel a measure of restoration, and for a chaplain that’s very gratifying. We’re just vessels, setting the table, proving an opportunity for communion.”
In the past, Lannom said calls for Code Lavender came about once a week. “In the last month, we’ve done 23,” she said. “And that’s huge. It’s caring for the caregiver.”
The hospital has not seen a rise of COVID-19 cases yet in the area, which is not as populated as other places. Still, Tallahassee Memorial has been preparing for a surge of patients from the pandemic.
That means becoming more proficient in telemedicine and connecting with families through a phone call. “Life is very different now,” Lannom said. “Not having families here, not being able to support their loved ones physically is difficult. But we can still be there for them.”
Chaplains cannot see isolated patients face-to-face to preserve PPEs for nurses and doctors. “What we do instead is have an iPad in every isolation room,” Lannom said. “When a patient is alert, they can use it. We can still have visits with them through that.”
If they prefer to use a phone instead, that is also an option, Lannom said. “I want to help people feel at ease, create a safe space where they can feel connected to the holy in a way that makes sense to them,” she explained.
Chaplains are essential to the hospital, she added. “Sometimes people come in, because they don’t know what’s wrong with them, and that can be a time of great existential anxiety,” she said. “Or you can be afraid of a serious problem, and need someone to talk to. Chaplains are always there.”
Their role is to offer hope, encouragement, care, love and support, Lannom said. All humans are hardwired to search for meaning, she explained, and when they struggle to find purpose, are susceptible to despair.
“Spirituality helps people find meaning and purpose in life,” she said. “That can be through nature, service to others, music and art. I’m here to help them connect with that. And if they can connect with spirituality, they can connect with a future story, which helps them with healing.”