How One Kansas City Hospital Chaplain Is Dealing With The COVID-19 Pandemic
A hospital chaplain shares her coping strategies and rituals for taking of herself while ministering to patients during the pandemic.
As a chaplain in a city hospital, Kelly Hansen is no stranger to communicating with the families of the dying. She has pastored families who don't make it to Truman Medical Centers, where she works, before an accident or gunshot victim passes away.
But the quarantine and social distancing requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic mean she might be an intermediary between a dying patient and a family that is isolated at home just a short distance away. Or even in another part of the hospital, restricted from being on the hospital floor.
"So trying to figure out what that looks like for a chaplain, to be able to be very descriptive on the phone about what their family member looks like," she says, "and to put the phone up to their ears and say ‘go ahead and speak to your loved one, they will still be able to hear you, no matter what condition they're in.'"
While experts suggest the virus may not affect our area as badly as once believed, cases are poised to see a peak in the coming weeks. Hospitals are trying to brace for an increase in infected patients.
Hospital staff are also feeling the stress and tension of this time. Hansen and her colleagues are making treat bags and fun gifts for nurses and staff.
She created a "wisdom jar" with small pieces of paper for hospital workers to pull out. They have supportive sayings or questions like, "What have you done to take care of yourself today?"
"You can't forget the pandemic, seeing everyone through protective gear and talking through masks," Hansen says. "This time is exhausting and traumatic for hospital workers as well as patients."
A ministry of presence
The hospital chaplaincy is called a ministry of presence. As opposed to more long-term relationships cultivated in a church ministry, a hospital chaplain often is asked to have a one-time meeting with a patient or family. They frequently occur at moments of death and dying.
Hansen is also called when there's something to celebrate: a positive test result or the birth of a baby.
She's seeking opportunities like this to focus on joy. Gratitude. It's a coping device.
"Just now I read an email from work that shared how they’re going to start playing the theme from Rocky whenever we discharge a COVID patient as a sort of celebration," she says, "Just like we celebrate by having a lullaby when a baby is born."
She's also finding new ways to take care of herself as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic drills deeper and drags on.
“So I’ve been challenging myself with different ways of writing recently," she says, "not to just to focus on sermons or devotionals but also to write more creatively, creating a poem or a story where I’m a character or there’s another character that’s gonna be going through the same emotions I am.”
For a long time she's had a meditation practice. She's trying to be particularly disciplined with it these days.
"Time set aside specifically every day in silence," she says. "But then this time (I also have) racing thoughts and anxiety that pop up over and over again so trying to have my mind become silent is a challenge."
To take her mind off her work for a while, she's studying Spanish. When she's stressed, physical activity helps her, so she's started visiting the basketball court next to her apartment to shoot some hoops.
Before now, Hansen says she wasn't a big fan of poetry. Today, she's finding inspiration in the words of poets like Christine Valters Paintner. Paintner was inspired by monastic practice, Catholic ritual and holy texts that reflect everyday life.
“Do not rush to make meaning," reads a passage from Paintner. "When you smile and say what purpose this all serves, you deny grief a room inside you, you turn from thousands who cross into the Great Night alone, from mourners aching to press one last time against the warm flesh of their beloved, from the wailing that echoes in the empty room.”
Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on twitter @laurazig or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.