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PC(USA) hospital chaplains respond to gargantuan pandemic needs

Chaplains are ‘compassionate, loving people’ and a blessing to people in need

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Unexpected treats paid for by a grant from the Presbytery of West Virginia boosted morale at a West Virginia hospital, a PC(USA) chaplain said. (Photo courtesy of the Rev. Kathy Weed)

LOUISVILLE — Also known as Pastoral Care Week, Spiritual Care Week began Monday and continues through Sunday. Learn more about Spiritual Care Week, along with this year’s theme of Advancing Spiritual Care Through Research, by clicking here.

Heading into the week honoring those doing ministry in specialized settings including college campuses, military bases, mental health facilities and hospitals, the Rev. Lyman Smith, a retired chaplain and captain in the United States Navy and the executive director of Presbyterian Federal Chaplaincies, reached out to chaplains in healthcare settings so that Presbyterians can learn more about their difficult and often exhausting work in their particular surroundings.

Following are excerpts submitted by the Rev. Kathryn Willoughby Weed, who since 1995 has been a staff chaplain at Thomas Health System in Charleston, West Virginia, and the Rev. Edward Spence, a retired PC(USA) chaplain certified by the Association of Professional Chaplains, as is Weed.

“Chaplains are here for everybody!” Spence wrote. “Our training in classes and seminars helps us learn more about ourselves so we are able to help others share their story and find new patterns for their lives in the future.”

“As a rural, low population state, COVID came late to West Virginia,” Weed wrote. “But when it arrived it walloped us, especially emergency rooms and critical care units. … The current wave has been the worst of all.” Many patients deny the reality of COVID, and “three days later they are on ventilators. Others believe it is the Mark of the Beast. Many family members are hostile as well, blaming staff when patients don’t improve.”

Hardest hit, Weed said, has been critical care staff. “Their exhausting work is difficult enough, but the relenting hostility of many patients and families can be almost unbearable,” Weed said. “’It’s the mental stress,’ one nurse told me. Another said, ‘A year ago we were heroes. Now we’re the enemy.’ Many also have COVID themselves or have cared for family members with it. Some have lost relatives to the virus. Already understaffed, nurses have been asked to do more and longer shifts. Many quit to become highly paid traveling nurses. Others simply quit. To put it mildly, morale has been terrible.”

At an especially low point, the critical care manager reached out to the pastoral care staff. “Though we were actively present on the units, providing pastoral care to staff as well as patients and families, we needed to do something extra,” Weed said. “Employees needed to realize their hard, hard work was appreciated by those in the local community.” But how?

“Providentially,” Weed said, the Presbytery of West Virginia Relations Committee Cluster/Collaborative Ministry Fund was ready to support the ministry of the eight chaplains serving in the presbytery. “They offered us mini-grants to fund staff support events. All we had to do was complete a simple application with our plan and budget. We were overjoyed.”

With the financial help, Weed and the rest of the Pastoral Care Department went to work. First they put up posters of encouragement and appreciation in bathrooms and breakrooms. “Then for two weeks we provided pastries from a beloved local bakery,” Weed said. “The third week we provided cakes. We took care to do this on both shifts on separate days each week to reach the maximum number of employees.”

Placed next to the sweets was a sign saying, “Provided by the Presbytery of West Virginia. We appreciate all you do!” The response was both appreciation and surprise, according to Weed. “Wow, these are sooooo good!” “Why are they doing this for us?” “What’s a presbytery?” were among them.

The Rev. Kathy Weed

Some healthcare workers fear another surge following Thanksgiving, Weed said. “They continue to need support and encouragement from their communities. With no prompting from me the First Presbyterian Church of St. Albans, West Virginia [where Weed has long served as Parish Associate] is currently preparing ‘Fuel for the Fight’ goodie bags for critical care, emergency room and respiratory therapy staff. I will help distribute 130 bags to assure these frontline employees that their efforts are both recognized and appreciated.”

The presbytery’s Stated Clerk and Associate for Congregational Support, the Rev. Maureen Wright, has been sending weekly emails to the chaplains working in the presbytery, which Weed called “a potent reminder that our work was not being overlooked or taken for granted.” The presbytery’s Presbyterian Women provided financial gifts to chaplains “with the proviso we use it only for self-care.” Weed used hers “on a post-vaccination week visiting my BBF, walking, talking, baking and bingeing on Netflix.”

“Critical care chaplaincy is rarely easy. The pandemic has made it especially intense and exhausting,” Weed said. Her father and a close friend were hospitalized for coronavirus treatment during the same week in January. Both eventually died from COVID-related complications, Weed said. “Again I received congregational and presbytery support through emails, cards and a pastor visit” from the presbytery’s Executive Presbyter, the Rev. Ed Thompson.

“For me and many others,” 2021 has been far worse than 2020, Weed wrote. “My faith gives me comfort. Love from my family and a strong circle of friends give me strength. The presbytery has given me pastoral support and practical resources for my ministry. In the midst of sickness, grief, stress and exhaustion, there can be joy. My hope and prayer is that I can be a joyful, healing, comforting presence as I continue my calling as a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) hospital chaplain.

Chaplains are ‘compassionate, loving people’

Spence wrote that he trained for chaplaincy in two mental health facilities. “In these settings, we receive clinical supervision of our interaction with patients in the institution,” Spence wrote.

The Rev. Ed Spence

For seven years he served as a hospital chaplain, “during which time I walked the journey with hundreds of people in various stages of need,” he said. “My job was not to ‘evangelize’ them to become Christians, but to serve them by letting them share their needs and hopes as they dealt with illness or emotional/spiritual stress. We served people of all faith groups.”

Since then, Spence has served on Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s National Response Team, with an emphasis in the areas of emotional and spiritual care.

Since the pandemic began in March 2020, “the need has been great,” he wrote. “Members of our PDA team have helped to resource online Resilience and Renewal retreats for people who have been through these traumatic events, and at the same time dealt with the complications brought by COVID-19.”

These events have provided “a way of helping a variety of people to find healing for themselves and then be able to better serve others,” Spence wrote, adding that recently a friend who knew of Spence’s experience asked if he knew of a counselor who could help the friend deal with “the isolation and other difficulties” that came with the pandemic.

“Chaplains are compassionate, loving people, and we bring support and companionship for many people who are dealing with the troubles that come from challenging situations,” Spence wrote. “Our presence in any community is a blessing to those in need and a way that we can all be the hands and feet of Christ as we bring peace and hope out of chaos.”

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