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Chaplains minister to coronavirus patients 

03 April 2020


Military personnel outside St Thomas’s Hospital, London, on Tuesday

Military personnel outside St Thomas’s Hospital, London, on Tuesday

HOSPITAL chaplains are facing a continuously evolving situation as they continue to minister as best they can to patients and staff in hospitals throughout the country, and especially in London, where one third of all hospitalised coronavirus patients were this week.

At Guy’s and St Thomas’s NHS Foundation Trust (GSTT), in central London, an infectious-diseases hospital, chaplains have personal protection equipment (PPE), scrupulously changed as they visit different bays, and so can still interact with patients and staff on all wards except critical care.

The head of spiritual health care and chaplaincy, the Revd Mia Hilborn, said on Tuesday: “People in the hospital here are generally more concerned about their families than they are about themselves, but the level of anxiety is just hovering over the city.

“We obviously have a lot of major incidents here and they’re terrible, but they’re generally quick. This is like a chronic incident. It’s long-term; so it’s needing different skills. It’s a different way of disaster management, for want of a better word.”

Chaplains are trying to concentrate on the wards that have a lot of stress, while supporting staff and patients on other wards as well. “We’re trying to be very ‘out there’, dropping all the things that aren’t relevant for now and concentrating on the things that help day-by-day, so that the team doesn’t fall apart,” Mrs Hilborn said.

Patients at GSTT can receive communion literally at arm’s length, with the wafer skilfully dropped on to the communicant’s arm. At 12 noon each day, all those who have died from the coronavirus, with their families, are remembered in prayer, with the staff who care for them. “We try to stand in the place of relatives and friends, and we name them as well,” Mrs Hilborn said. “If someone wants us to act in their place because they can’t come in, then we will do that for them. We love to do so.”

Prayers circulated by Chelmsford diocese for use when families or carers cannot be present at a death have been emailed and have been warmly received by those at home. Infection-control measures have been put in place to avoid having to dispose of patients’ precious objects such as Bibles. “We are thinking on our feet,” Mrs Hilborn said. “Every day is different, and things are changing all the time. You just try to adapt. You know why you’re there. The patients are here and the staff are here, and we are here for them.”

The lead chaplain for chaplaincy and spiritual care with bereavement services at Croydon University Hospital, the Revd Andrew Dovey, said on Tuesday that providing God’s grace in all situations, regardless of the risk, was “the calling that Christ gave [chaplains] and our Christian responsibility.”

Providing pastoral and spiritual care remotely for families; linking with other faith leaders and being with patients while prayers were being provided over the phone; and trying to co-ordinate and develop processes to expedite medical cause of death certificates with the Registrar, were just some of the team’s many daily concerns.

The Revd Jennifer Sistig holds the same post at the acute hospital of Frimley Heath NHS Foundation Trust, which covers a large area of the Home Counties. Chaplaincy was essentially an intimate relationship, and so the lack of face-to-face personal interaction with the majority of inpatients was of great concern, she said on Tuesday. “Barriers, even for the very valid reason of infection-control for the safety of the patients, staff, and the chaplains themselves, are just that — barriers.”

At the start of the crisis, the advice for chaplains at Frimley was that all inpatient contact should be limited to emergency outgoing calls only, preferably virtual by voice call and video call. But now chaplains are being “fit-tested” for PPE (personal protective equipment), with the aim of enabling them to mirror the practice of ward staff at a patient’s bedside.

“We’re offering support by call and video link to families and staff as well as to inpatients, but we feel strongly that a personal presence is more powerful than a virtual one,” Mrs Sistig said. “At present, we can pray for the dying from afar and we can equip families with words they might not be able to pluck from troubled minds.”

She praised the College of Health Care Chaplains network for the “invaluable resource” it had swiftly created: a digital, comforting, multi-faith resource to be placed on the intranet, for families or carers to use at the bedside of someone close to the end of life.

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