What it’s like to be a hospital chaplain in a pandemic

Renée Owen talks about the importance of being present and finding peace

Chaplain Renée Owen
Renée Owen in the chapel of Wellstar Kennestone

Photograph by Johnathon Kelso

Atlantans is a first-person account of the familiar strangers who make the city tick. This month’s is Renée Owen, executive director of spiritual health for Wellstar Health System, as told to Thomas Wheatley.

We start by asking patients to think about a time in their life when they had been hospitalized before or when they’ve gone through a crisis or a difficult time. What was it that helped them get through that time? Sometimes, those answers are their faith or prayer, their family. Or sometimes, through a conversation with a family or a team member, we find what is going to help them. What is their source of strength?

One of the first things that concerned me and my team—I oversee the chaplains in the 11-hospital Wellstar Health System—after the pandemic started was: How do we continue to be present when we can’t be physically present? So much of what we do as a chaplain is holding someone’s hand. May I touch your forehead when I offer a blessing? How are we going to do that? How do we continue to do this and keep patients and my chaplains safe?

Our chaplains decided, for patients in isolation, we’re going to stand in the doorway and introduce ourselves to the patient. For others, we’re going to look through the window and call them. We’ll tell them, I’m going back to my office, but I’m going to keep you on the phone so we can keep talking. Then, when I get to a private space, we can have a private conversation.

We’re doing everything that we can do to make sure one family member is able to be “present.” In some rare circumstances, families have stood in the doorway. We made tablets available for patients so they can video chat. We can hold the phone as a family member in another state talks to their dad. We’ve been able to have live video calls so the family could see their loved one in those last, really sacred moments of life, as they’re transitioning.

Families find comfort in being able to offer something to their loved one. And that offering oftentimes is their presence, their touch, their voice. And so, not being able to offer those things or say goodbye adds another layer of grief. On the back end of that, after a death, families can’t have a traditional funeral or memorial service. It might be that, Mom’s told me for years what she wants for her funeral. And now, I can’t honor that.

Grace, one of our chaplains at our Wellstar Douglas facility, was speaking on the phone with a son who was really struggling: My dad’s dying. Can I come see him? What am I going to do? She helped him process: If I come to the hospital, then I’m gonna have to quarantine myself for 14 days because I can’t come back home to be with my wife and children. It’s not about necessarily giving people answers. It’s about helping, supporting, and being present when they explore what the answers are for themselves. He ended up coming to visit. One of our other chaplains at Douglas was with him when he arrived. He made a sacrifice to be present.

I remember one day just literally sitting on the floor of my office and crying. I was thinking about people dying alone. With volunteers not allowed in the hospital because of Covid-19, we trained doctors, nurses, and other hospital employees how to be with a patient whose family or friends are not able to be with them. If the patient is not able to talk, telling them, I’m here. You’re not going to be alone. Families are made aware so that they can be comforted knowing that their loved one is not dying alone.

We’ve been doing more staff care than ever. The chaplain will go in and do a “tea for the soul,” bring in music or massage pads we can sanitize between uses. It creates a casual atmosphere where a team member will start talking with the chaplain. And whatever is said there stays confidential. I’ve encouraged them, Be good to yourself.

We’ve started modifying schedules so that some chaplains are in the hospital two days a week, and then, three days a week, they’re working from home to support other chaplains remotely. I try to make sure that I still take a lunch break. I have a puppy, so I walk the puppy, and then, we come back in.

Early in my chaplaincy career, a supervisor told me to think of a bucket taking up water from a well. If you take water all the time, the well runs dry. You have to let the well refill.

This article appears on our July 2020 issue.