The life of a chaplain

What does being a chaplain look like during a pandemic? Elim members Carolyn Castle and Debbie Howard share their stories

Carolyn Castle has worked in hospital chaplaincy for 16 years and rose to the challenge of leading her team at Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board’s hospitals during the pandemic.

"As chaplains, we’re normally proactive about visiting patients at their bedsides, but this was no longer possible during lockdown because we could have been Covid-19 carriers or spreaders, so we had to work very differently.

"Instead, we supported patients by offering prayers and bereavement support over the phone and worked closely with the psychology department and the wellbeing teams.

"We made a huge shift towards staff support. You will have seen pictures and news reports about the staff and how they were coping; we supported them as much as we could. The Health Board set up a recharge room for them to take time out if they needed it and we visited them to see if they needed support.

"Staff obviously had many fears and concerns. They were coming into an environment where they were at risk themselves and then going home. Some chose to move out of their family homes, but a lot didn’t. NHS staff are heroes as far as I’m concerned, for what they’ve gone through and how they put themselves at risk for the rest of us.

"To help us cope with our workload, I appointed honorary chaplains who were local clergy. They were amazing and I couldn’t have done it without them. They supported us, responding to patient requests and end-of-life situations, and had conversations about faith, worries, fears, and doubts. They also spent time with staff, giving them a listening ear. For me, the mental and psychological exhaustion was a big challenge; adapting to change so rapidly. Having to be on constant alert is also very draining.

"I’d shower and get changed before I left work, then all my clothes would go in the wash at 60°C. I’m still doing that; it’s a pattern I’ve got into because you don’t want to take the virus home. People’s fears are different now lockdown is easing.

"As more patients come back to hospital they can feel quite scared because this is where we’re treating Covid.

"Bereavement is another issue, and I think that will be so long-term when you consider that people haven’t been able to grieve together or do the things we’d normally do when we lose a loved one. We’ve been having a lot of conversations about this lately.

"The amount of work and change during lockdown was totally overwhelming and the uncertainty we face now is difficult.

"But the greatest miracle for me in chaplaincy ministry, and I was reminded of this throughout lockdown, is the presence of Christ and that he uses me to be a channel of his peace and presence in every situation".

Debbie Howard has worked with Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust for four years but was only weeks into her new role as lead chaplain when the Covid-19 pandemic broke out.

"At my job interview I’d talked about the need to have a vision, but that vision in healthcare needs to be flexible. I had to put that theory into practice very quickly.

"In many ways, our role changed. We continued to visit patients if a member of staff or family asked us to do so, but without the same freedom to walk around wards, our main focus became supporting staff.

"As you can imagine, they were under incredible pressure dealing with things they'd never come across before in an ever-changing environment. The Trust recognised the importance of supporting staff and wanted chaplaincy to be a part of this. Wearing the appropriate PPE, we would walk around the hospital checking on staff, and we set up drop-in centres in the chapel so they could talk with a chaplain if they wanted to.

"We also set up mindfulness, and meditation, sessions to provide opportunities to reflect. We lit a candle at each hospital site at midday, just to recognise everything that was happening, and to remember families and those who had lost loved ones; to remember patients who were ill on the wards, and also the staff caring for them.

"We would often come back to the chapel or the office and a staff member would knock on the door and burst into tears, or just want an opportunity to speak to us about how they were feeling. If we found out a hospital ward or department was struggling, we would put on PPE and stand alongside them so they knew they weren’t alone.

"I had several local ministers with pastoral experience work alongside us as honorary chaplains. They would walk around the more clinical areas talking with staff and supporting them. They did chocolate rounds as an opportunity to check in on staff and thank them for all they were doing. Having that connection and support from local churches was really beneficial.

I think this experience has really raised the profile of chaplaincy. Staff who may just have called us about a patient now realise we can talk to them too. And they know we aren’t just going to be religious; we’re just there to support them, and we understand what they’re going through.

We’re finding now, as we come out of the heightened pandemic status, that patient referrals are increasing. In addition, staff are reflecting on everything they’ve been through and are coming to see us much more regularly too, to talk through how they’re feeling.

It was an incredible privilege that chaplains had such an important role to play during the pandemic. You might ask, would a chaplain be wanted in a secular organisation? I would say most definitely. We’re there to show God’s love in a very practical way by coming alongside people, to support them.


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