Nothing Normal: Hospital Chaplaincy in a COVID-19 World
By David Neidert
“About the only normal thing now is the hour-long drive to work,” reflects Joseph Smythe. A hospital chaplain with Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, Smythe begins his days checking new developments, patient logs, floor assignments, clearing messages, and listening to colleagues share their COVID-19 stories. Then it is off to patient rooms not visited the previous day.
Smythe hears many stories daily. A nurse whose brother died of COVID-19 in New York City shares the family was unable to be with the sibling in his final hours. Another tells of her sister, who has cancer, was able to give time to other patients even as she personally battles a disease. A chaplain colleague reflects how the pandemic has changed his life and wonders what the future will bring. Smythe listens quietly and prays. There is nothing normal in these daily conversations.
Smythe, an Anderson University School of Theology and Christian Ministries-trained pastor, began working as a volunteer chaplain in October 2007 for the medical center. He was subsequently hired to work weekends in 2009. During that time, he became a board-certified chaplain with the Association for Professional Chaplains. He also currently pastors Sodus Church of God in New York.
Smythe and his colleague, Rev. Terry Ruth Culbertson, are two of fourteen chaplains with ordination in the Church of God working for Upstate. “Rev. Terry,” with over thirty years of ministry in long-term care, hospice, corrections, acute care, and psychiatry, came to Upstate in 2003 to serve as the first manager of spiritual care. She, too, carries board certifications in chaplaincy, is a certified clinical pastoral education supervisor and certified thanatologist, one who studies death and the practices associated with it, including the study of the needs of the terminally ill and their families.
Smythe and Culbertson spend their shifts ministering in an environment that now requires masks, handwashing, social distancing, and no hugs—a nearly essential, but now suspended element of pastoral care. Their conversations engage family members who cannot understand the reason for so many deaths or why the church needs to support stay-at-home directives. Their minds are also filled with duties outside the hospital, which additionally demand their energy. Nothing normal anymore.
Chaplain Ashley Fletcher, serving at the Sidney & Lois Eskenazi Hospital in Indianapolis, echoes what colleagues states away are experiencing. “I walk between hundreds of yellow gowns each day hung in the halls of the ICU,” she writes. “They drift silently in the air current of negative pressure that purges the unit of infectious disease.”
Physical touch is upended for chaplains and grieving family members of those in ICU. “I share images of their loved ones in ICU with adult children on a video tablet in a restricted area,” reflects Fletcher. “It feels traumatically inadequate. A grainy transmission is the only consolation I can offer a family,” she laments.
Fletcher, who also received her MDiv from Anderson University School of Theology and Christian Ministries, continues that these moments place her in the universal human experience of grief that transcends language. She shares of a recent, but too familiar scenario. “I held as steady as I could a video tablet above an ICU bed where a priest was administering last rites,” recalls Fletcher. “The family said their goodbyes in language I did not understand, save a single phrase, ‘Te quiero mucho, Papa’ (We love you a lot). The weeping that came needed no translation. I joined them in whispering the Lord’s Prayer.”
Smythe says nothing in his training prepared him for this event. The Psalms, however, remind these chaplains that God, the shepherd, is leading them through these inexplicable moments. “Amid ventilator whirring and medication drips, I and my hospital colleagues feel fear, loss, anger and threats from an invisible war,” shares Fletcher. Yet, the Psalms, they agree, offer reminders that, while devastation is currently the norm, salvation is coming. A favorite Psalm for Smythe gives that assurance: “They will call on me, and I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will deliver them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them and show them my salvation” (Psalm 91:15–16 NIV).
Editor’s note—This concludes Part 1 of a two-part feature on chaplaincy in a COVID-19 world. Stay tuned to CHOGnews for Part 2 in the coming days.
David Neidert, born and raised in the Church of God, serves as a contributing writer and editor for Church of God Ministries. He worked at Anderson University for thirty-eight years and served the Historical Society of the Church of God as editor for one year. His published works include curriculum, numerous articles, and two books.
Learn more about the response of Church of God Ministries to the coronavirus (COVID-19), including resources for you and your church, at www.jesusisthesubject.org/theway.
Feature (top) photo by Graham Ruttan on Unsplash.