10 December 2022

Hospital chaplains shoulder grief, share joy in COVID ‘trenches’

Chaplains in hospitals hear lots patients’ stories. Picture: iStock.

Jenan Taylor

24 June 2022

Chaplains are more focused than ever on the support of staff, patients and families, as COVID rages on in hospitals.

Anglican chaplain the Reverend Dennis Emery likens the struggles with COVID to being in the trenches of a battlefront.

A full-time chaplain in the palliative care and haematology wards of the Austin Hospital, Mr Emery said neither he or his colleagues have ever experienced anything on the scale of the pandemic before.

Since he started the role two and a half years ago, the hospital has been under tough restrictions.

Patients can’t have visitors, even if they’re not in there for COVID, and staff turn away family members, even if they’re the loved ones of people in the palliative care ward, unless they are terminal.

Mr Emery said it was very hard for the patients and traumatising for the staff who often have to deal with the despair or outrage of about 1000 patients and their family members.

“Outside the hospital things may have returned to normal, but inside it’s far from being the case,” he said.

One of a small team of spiritual carers at the hospital, Mr Emery spends a great deal of his time trying to bring a bit of normality to the daily experiences of patients and workers.

It means being a listening post and a shoulder for his burnt-out colleagues.

It also means holding the hands of palliating patients in prayer, and sometimes agreeing to their final whispered pleas: to lift his face shield and lower his mask so they can glimpse a human face in their last moments.

Read more: Hospital chaplains undervalued despite COVID burden

Mr Emery said he always tries to lighten things a little for them by apologising for not being much to look at. “You see the biggest smile on their face, and I’ll always carry that with me.”

Even so, he said those moments can be profoundly difficult, and for the people he works with, even more so.  

“COVID has been the most stressful time of my entire professional career, or certainly as long as I am going to remain a spiritual carer,” Mr Emery said.

The experiences of the Reverend Jo Hall, a chaplain at a major hospital in another part of Melbourne, are a little different, but no less stressful.

Ms Hall used to work with a colleague, who ended up having to work at home, so for the last two and a half years she has been the only pastoral carer doing in-person ministry at the hospital.

As a part-timer, she has a lot of ground to cover in a short time frame, and also spends some of that time doing chaplaincy by telephone.

The challenges can be numerous, Ms Hall said. “Various live chats or Zoom meetings can be limiting for people who for age, or other reasons, are not technically or medically up to that.”

For people who have dementia or who normally lip read, it can be overwhelming, she said.

Most of the staff support she does, revolves around the doctors and nurses in the voluntary assisted dying ward. “As a relatively new thing in Victoria, it’s quite confronting for the ward and often brings up a lot of issues for them,” Ms Hall said.

She also gives pastoral support to patients who might be flown in from regional areas, and who because of COVID combined with the distance from home, tend to be very traumatised.

Only working 18 hours a week could be difficult. “You can only do what you do, then let go and let God do the rest,” she said.

Nonetheless, it was immensely rewarding, Ms Hall said. “You’re accompanying people and expressing God’s love to people in the darkest moments when they’re most alone and frightened. But you can also be the neutral, non-threatening person in the health team.”

She also loved being there for people of other faiths, denominations and backgrounds, Ms Hall said.

It was the same for Mr Emery. He said it was an honour for him to hold the hands of Muslim, Buddhist and other cultures and be asked to pray for them.

“I love what I do and passionate about what I believe in. I love meeting people and I hear so many patients’ stories. It’s a privilege to be a part of their grief. It’s a privilege to be a part of their celebration of life,” Mr Emery said.

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