“THIS is why I was ordained a priest.” The words of the Revd James Mackay, a Roman Catholic chaplain at the London Nightingale coronavirus field hospital, in a BBC interview, have been echoed by other hospital chaplains.
That hospital is no longer admitting new patients, and other Nightingale hospitals are almost empty. None the less, in regular hospitals, chaplains continue to work all hours to serve both the sick and those caring for them. Despite the extreme pressure, many talk about the privilege of being a priest in such circumstances.
“It sounds very pious, but actually being with the sick and anointing those on the journey is just core to priesthood,” said the Revd Craig Fullard, a Roman Catholic priest and chaplain in Birmingham. “It’s what we are ordained to do.”
“That’s the word I use — privilege,” agreed the Revd Susan van Beveren, the Anglican head of the chaplaincy team at Kingston Hospital, in south-west London.
An Anglican chaplain at two hospitals in Carlisle diocese, the Revd Barrie Thomas, used the same word: “It’s a privilege to be a priest; we’re called to be there. We go there, regardless.”
“It’s always a privilege to come alongside a patient in their last minutes of life,” Fr Fullard said. “It’s even more so because you are in a place where family can’t be.”
THE ban on visitors remains in place, so much of the chaplains’ work has been to act as a bridge between patients and their families, relaying information to relatives on the phone, and to pass on messages to the patients.
Many hospitals have bought tablets (the electronic sort), and chaplains have often helped to facilitate video calls so that patients can see and talk to their family. Ms van Beveren said that she and her team had also spent many hours on the phone with dying patients and their relatives, reassuring them that their loved one was well looked after to the end.
A Church of Scotland chaplain in Fife, Deacon Mark Evans, said that it was vital to dispel the myth that Covid-19 patients died alone. “Patients don’t die alone. They die with members of staff sitting beside them, holding their hands and talking to them as if it were their own mum or dad, granny or granddad. Chaplains are at the forefront of that.”
Fr Fullard also spoke of the difficulty of ministering while wearing personal protective equipment (PPE): heavy gowns, masks, gloves, and visors. He had had to shift his entire approach, when he realised that nobody could see him smile.
“It’s a very different way of being with a patient. Communication is changed,” he said. He has replaced his normal instinctive non-verbal cues with phrases such as “Hearing you say you are better today makes me feel happy.”
Lisa Opala“It began to be evident that we were not just called upon to tend sick bodies, but troubled minds and souls, too” — Lisa Opala, an ordinand serving on the covid wards in north-east England
Ms van Beveren said that everyone at her hospital had quickly adapted to the new norm. And the most important part of a chaplain’s appearance — the eyes — were still visible, she said. “You do a lot of talking with the eyes. And sometimes those eyes are pouring with tears, because it’s really tough.”
Mr Evans agreed. “As long as you can get that eye-to-eye contact, even with a mask and gloves and gown on, there is still that human connection.” He had also conducted a wedding in full PPE at his hospital, with just the bride, groom, and two witnesses.
A chaplain at East Lancashire Hospital, the Revd David Anderson, said in an article that he wrote for his NHS trust’s internal newsletter, that he often came across staff sitting in odd corners of the hospital, quietly weeping. “For the staff, this is costly work. We are emotionally drained; our emotions are raw. Tears come much more quickly than they did in the past.”
Fr Fullard said that the administration of the sacraments had also continued, much to the relief of the families of his Roman Catholic patients. Others have told how they have anointed patients with oil using cotton buds and while wearing gloves — the closest thing to physical contact allowed.
Mr Anderson recounted how, the first time that a Covid-19 patient died on one of his wards, he had gathered doctors, nurses, and porters, around the man’s bed for a psalm and the Lord’s Prayer.
He wrote: “The small congregation join in regardless of their own personal faith. Our voices sound muffled under our FFP3 masks, and I begin to notice tears running down the face of some of my colleagues. It seems particularly cruel that they cannot even wipe away their tears.”
The other task for chaplains is supporting the staff. Inspired by colleagues in Italian hospitals, many chaplains have created spaces inside the hospitals where NHS staff can take time out, recharge, and receive pastoral support in the middle of a shift. Some call these “safe spaces”, others “staff zones”, and still more “wobble rooms” — where staff can go to when they are having a bit of a “wobble”. In Carlisle, Mr Thomas reports that they have comfortable chairs, a constant chaplaincy presence, and tables laden with food donated by schools and businesses.
As well as talking to patients and families, chaplains are also spending time on the phone to staff, listening to them and encouraging them after they come off 12-hour shifts in busy wards.
Mr Evans said that his chaplains were important as listeners, especially as they were not connected to formal human-resources teams and managers. He has spent most of his time moving from ward to ward in full PPE, asking any staff he meets, “How are you doing today?”
He said: “It’s a really simple thing, but it makes a huge difference — you’re not asking about the patients, you're asking about them. You’re affirming people’s humanity, which I think is really important.”
Ms van Beveren said that one of the most moving tasks of the past six weeks had been organising memorials for staff members. She also opened the hospital chapel during the minute’s silence two weeks ago, to remember frontline workers who had died. A stream of staff, all two metres apart, spent an hour filing in to light candles and reflect before heading back to work.
DESPITE the strain, every chaplain interviewed spoke of believing that the system, and, in particular, its people, were coping. Mr Evans said that he had even become an unintended expert on death registration, as he had spent hours working with an NHS committee on the topic to ensure that deaths were still recorded legally, and with dignity and humanity.
Fr Fullard said that all the NHS staff with whom he worked had coped with whatever had been thrown at them. But it had been a close-run thing.
The chaplains felt that going through the peak of the pandemic alongside clinical colleagues had created a new bond, with fresh opportunities for the future. Doctors and nurses who had previously been sceptical about the need for chaplains now recognised them as core.
“We are no longer an add-on,” Mr Thomas said, “which sometimes chaplaincy can be. Now it’s right at the heart of things.”
Fr Fullard said that the crisis had shown the strength of the relationships built up over many years between chaplains and hospital staff. He recounted how, when joining the queue to be trained in PPE use, a senior nurse had warmly welcomed him and his small band of clerical volunteers, saying: “I’m so pleased to see you, we’re going to need you more than ever.”
The take-up of worship had increased greatly, Mr Evans said. A 20-minute Good Friday service in the chapel, usually attended by about 30 people, was posted on Twitter and watched by more than 4500.
“We have a responsibility to build on this and take it forwards,” Mr Thomas concluded. “What was the old norm cannot be the norm any more. All things have changed.”