Anglican spiritual care practitioners talk COVID-19 (Part 2)

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The Rev. Donald Shields stocks a "staff wellness cart" at Markham Stouffville Hospital with chocolate and water provided by local churches. He also offers staff weekly self-care tips. Photo: Donald Shields

Read Part 1 of this story here.

Much has changed since COVID-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus SARA-CoV-2, was declared a global pandemic in March—including the suspension of in-person church services and social distancing and isolation measures for all Canadians. But some Anglicans who work in the healthcare field now find themselves on the front lines of this public health emergency. Among them are hospital chaplains and spiritual care providers who work in health facilities, nursing homes and hospital wards.

In order to give a picture of the challenges they face, the Anglican Journal reached out to spiritual health practitioners by email and asked each the following questions:

  • What has working as a spiritual care provider been like during the COVID-19 pandemic? How is the virus affecting your place of work?
  • What challenges to your work does COVID-19 present? Are you able to visit patients as usual? Do you have to wear protective equipment?
  • What prayers do you have for this moment in time? How might people pray/rely on their faith in a time of emergency like this?
  • Have your church and diocese been supportive during this time?
  • What are some ways parishes/Anglicans can support spiritual care providers and other healthcare workers?

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. This story will be published in several installments.

“We see how real this is, how it affects those we deeply care about on a daily basis.” Photo: Contributed

The Rev. Dan Bowyer

Chaplain, Lutheran Homes Kitchener-Waterloo
Kitchener, Ont. (Diocese of Huron)

I serve as the chaplain at Trinity Village, Kitchener, a long-term care centre that is a ministry of the Eastern Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, full-communion partners of the Anglican Church of Canada. Serving at Trinity throughout this time has been intense and even more fast-paced than usual. Trinity Village has been affected in a myriad of ways by the COVID-19 pandemic. We see how real this is, how it affects those we deeply care about on a daily basis.

All of the ministries that I usually lead or co-ordinate which require groups gathering—including community worship, discussion groups and music ministries—are on hold until we are able to gather again. I am able to visit residents in pastoral need, which I am doing every day, being conscious of limiting my movements throughout Trinity Village at this time. I and all staff are required to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)—including mask, gown, gloves and eye shield—every day at Trinity Village. We have to change into new PPE when we move from one area of Trinity Village to another and I change into new PPE immediately after I have visited and offered prayer in the room of a resident who has COVID-19.

We can feel the prayers of the community surrounding us and upholding us.

My constant prayer is that all people connected to Trinity Village, residents, their families and staff will know God’s abiding presence in this time and that God would work in and through me to make known His presence. My faith and the awareness of God’s presence with me and with Trinity Village is what is allowing me to serve day-to-day in the ministry I have been called to. Many of the staff have indicated to me that prayer is sustaining them in their various roles throughout this time. I am humbled by the privilege of serving God in Chaplaincy at Trinity Village in this time. It is important that we see the places of blessing and God’s presence in the midst of challenge, the outpourings of love and support from the wider community, such as a donation of lunch for all staff at Trinity from a community group one day this week.

My bishop in the diocese of Huron, Bishop Todd Townshend, has been a wonderful pastoral support to me during this time, as has the bishop of the Eastern Synod of the ELCiC, the Rt. Rev. Michael Pryse.  Both have reached out to me to assure me of their prayers and support, as has my archdeacon in the deanery of Waterloo, the Ven. Megan Collings-Moore. All Saints’, Waterloo, where I serve as the part-time associate priest in concert with my ministry at Trinity Village, are upholding me in prayer and the “Wool Gatherers” knitting group at All Saints’ has made “ear savers” for the staff at Trinity Village to wear with our masks, to take the pressure off of our ears when wearing our masks.

We can feel the prayers of the community surrounding us and upholding us. I would also encourage Anglicans and parishes to reach out to the local care centres in their areas around the ways to best provide support. Some needs of course are universal, but there may be specific local needs that Anglicans and parishes can assist with.

“The hospital is unusually quiet outside of the units, and you hear yourself breathing in and out of a mask that you wear all day long.” Photo: Contributed

The Rev. Donald Shields

Coordinator of Spiritual and Religious Care, Markham Stouffville Hospital
Markham, Ont. (Diocese of Toronto)

Working at a hospital that has admitted its fair share of COVID-19 patients and experienced COVID-19 deaths, it has been surreal for the staff and myself. The hospital is unusually quiet outside of the units, and you hear yourself breathing in and out of a mask that you wear all day long. When praying for a patient with a confirmed case of COVID-19, you don PPE, which is monitored by a PPE monitor that assures you are rightly protected. I pray and support, but acknowledge my own fears against the unseen virus that has turned society on its head.

I visit patients that are referred to me and also work on supporting staff. I carry an iPad with numbers of clergy and spiritual leaders who can respond virtually with patients and their families.

When someone is imminent for death, I like to pray the following improvised prayer:

Creator God
In this sacred space between life and life
We invite you to be present with us
Be with ______ and wrap your arms of love around him/her
Be with family as they support ______
In Christ’s Name
Amen.

“People who are dying, people experiencing infant losses, people coming by ambulance to the ER, all without familial support with them; it’s hard.” Photo: Contributed

The Rev. Theo Robinson

Incumbent, St. Michael’s Anglican Church, Victoria Beach
Pastor, Interlake Shared Ministry, MNO Synod
Diocese of Rupert’s Land 

I am only a casual employee in spiritual care at a hospital, so I am not present every day. However, I have worked a handful of shifts during this pandemic and can certainly share what I have witnessed and what I’ve heard.

Working in spiritual care right now seems quite different. While one would normally be proactive—visiting patients who have been in hospital more than a few days, for example—it seems more reactionary now, waiting for pages and consults. As well, because visitors aren’t allowed, the halls are eerily quiet and you don’t have as many spontaneous visits with people wandering about. However, more spiritual care is needed for staff as they are working under more stressful conditions than normal.

We are provided a mask and glasses for PPE, which I admit makes visiting with people a little bit harder. Facial expressions are a big part of spiritual care, in the fact that a comforting smile and making good eye-contact can put a person at ease. Quite often I smile at people forgetting that I am wearing a mask, and more often than not my glasses are fogged up so you can’t see my eyes anyway. I feel for those who have to wear PPE all day.

Accompanying family members who wish to say goodbye to a loved one who died and having to get them geared up in gown, masks, and gloves; it can feel like some of the intimacy has left the moment.

A significant challenge that I noticed in my few shifts is the fact that family is not allowed in the hospital, or limited family. People who are dying, people experiencing infant losses, people coming by ambulance to the ER, all without familial support with them; it’s hard. Accompanying family members who wish to say goodbye to a loved one who died and having to get them geared up in gown, masks, and gloves; it can feel like some of the intimacy has left the moment.

I pray for healthcare staff, the stress and exhaustion they are experiencing while still showing care and compassion for their patients is unbelievable.

I pray for the families, who perhaps are used to visiting their loved one daily or suddenly have a loved one in hospital. To not be with your loved one when they need you the most is painful.

I pray for spiritual care workers who are trying to do their work in a whole different way than they are used to.

I pray for the patients. Being in hospital can be a lonely, time but being completely cutoff from your support system exacerbates that loneliness.

I would ask that parishes, and Anglicans in general, keep all of these people in your prayers.

The diocese of Rupert’s Land and Bishop Geoff [Woodcroft] are quite supportive of those in spiritual care, and I hope that all other dioceses are as well. Being in spiritual care is a special type of ministry that often goes unacknowledged. In these strange times, that hospital or personal care home chaplain might be the only person who has time to sit and be with patients and residents right now. And they deserve our respect and our prayers.

“The intensity of this situation and the isolation from family and supports have made this so unique.” Photo: Contributed

Tracey Stagg

Spiritual Health Practitioner, Peter Lougheed Centre
Calgary, Alta. (Diocese of Calgary)    

As a spiritual care provider, we care for everyone. While COVID-19 has no known cure and the medical community is finding out about it little by little, it is not the only virus/disease/condition with uncertainties. The intensity of this situation and the isolation from family and supports have made this so unique.

The virus, in both its certainty and uncertainty, does mean that things are very quiet in the hospital. We have no volunteers, family or visitors (extreme and measured situations only, and that changes often), and shops are closed. It is very quiet and very weird. There is a heightened awareness of the potential spread, and then the face masks and physical distancing as a matter of course. Here in Alberta we are doing well. I am at the Peter Lougheed hospital in Calgary, and we are in the center of things. That doesn’t mean we are any more or less challenged—we simply are doing our work day by day with intention and the presence of ministry that has no bounds in a pandemic.

The challenges are the extreme lack of supports for the patient (for all the right reasons) and the moral distress of staff as they sit with patients who cannot have a loved one nearby and need them. Someone also has to tell the family that they cannot come in. Sometimes this is at or near the time of death, and if there is a possibility of coming in, families must make choices about who comes in. No children are allowed.

I still see patients as usual, and these patients are just as sick, scared and lonely. That being said, our hospital capacity is much lower. We are ready for what is next. We just have less patients—no surgeries except those most needed or emergency, no outpatient clinics other than dialysis.

I wear a surgical mask in all patient care areas and when six feet of distance is not able to be maintained. When seeing a COVID patient, full PPE is required—gown, surgical mask, gloves face shield with lots of hand washing all around!

We simply are doing our work day by day with intention and the presence of ministry that has no bounds in a pandemic.

My prayer is for safety and strength. There are a lot of unknowns, and we must rely on our God and His wisdom through the medical community and our leadership to guide us. Faith is something that we rely on always. It is often tested or doubted when there is so much uncertainty and fear. We can take an example from the first disciples during that first Easter. Fear, doubt, grasping and certainty were all part of the feelings and actions at that time. God was with them, and Jesus comforted them then and does us now—somewhat unknowingly! I encourage people to rely on what got them through [previous] tough times. Was it a mantra, favourite scripture, the Lord’s Prayer, a comforting song? I have sung the doxology more in the last few weeks than in my entire life previously, as I sing it while I wash my hands—over and over. There is no rushing that song. It is comforting in words and slower in pace to balance out the uncertainty.

At one point you asked about prayers. I want to say that I really like the book entitled Prayers for Healing compiled by Daniel Graves. While I am very much motivated by praying in the moment and with the intention of the people that I am praying with, I do find this book very helpful.

My priest is supportive and aware of the work and risks that I take. I am grateful. Of course we are all worshipping separately and together in this odd way, and so support is different. My bishop is also aware of my ministry, and I am confident that should I need him in any direct way, he would be there pastorally. Our weekly diocesan prayer requests have listed all the health care and prison chaplains for special prayers, two weeks in a row. I truthfully do not know what else my church or diocese could do differently for me at this time. Their open presence and prayers are encouraging and enough, and I am thankful.

Truthfully, my perspective is to keep the faith and to keep distance with patience. This is a terrible virus, with no bounds. We all must do what we can together, for we truthfully are in God’s and each other’s hands.

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Joelle Kidd
Joelle Kidd joined the Anglican Journal in 2017 as staff writer. She has worked as an editor and writer for the Winnipeg-based Fanfare Magazine Group and as freelance copy editor for Naida Communications.

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