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A Bloomington-Normal hospital chaplain says they, too, have been 'busier' during the COVID-19 pandemic

"It's easier to sort of face the hard things in your life when you're not alone," says hospice chaplain Kerry Egan. "That's a big part of what a chaplain does, is she stays with you."
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"That can be one of the most healing and important things: Making space for those questions and not trying to give out easy, simple answers," said Mollie Ward, the director of spiritual care at Carle BroMenn Medical Center, which also functions as a "teaching hospital" for future chaplains.

Like so many things, the practice of hospital chaplaincy was hampered — though not deterred — by virus mitigation practices that started in 2020. To avoid transmitting COVID-19 among vulnerable people, hospitals limited visitors, required social distancing and, in the early days, were short on personal protective equipment.

For a profession in which physically being present is a crucial component, the impact on hospital chaplains could not be missed.

And, for the past two years, a feature of the McLean County Health Department's daily COVID-19 updates has been the reporting of hospital bed availability; earlier this week, MCHD reported that between both Carle BroMenn and OSF St. Joseph medical centers, all staffed hospital beds were full. Regardless of why the hospital is full — whether due to COVID patients or otherwise — a busy hospital translates to busy chaplains.

Mollie Ward is the director of spiritual care at Carle BroMenn Medical Center, which also functions as a "teaching hospital" for future chaplains. Ward, who was also elected to Bloomington's Ward 7 city council seat in 2021, recently sat down with WGLT to talk about what it means to be a chaplain, misconceptions about the profession — it's not about one particular religion, among the popular misconceptions — and how it's been practiced during COVID-19.

Mollie Ward
WGLT

WGLT: What draws you into work that has such a heavy, metaphysical/spiritual component to it every day?

Ward: I started out as a journalist and always thought I would continue in journalism. Along the way, I began to sense a call toward ordination and wound up going to seminary and being ordained an Episcopal priest. I initially thought I would wind up in parish ministry, but felt a call to chaplaincy after having done an internship as a chaplain as part of my seminary studies. It really pulled me in, and I wound up doing a residency here at BroMenn ... And I guess I've gotten really hooked into it.

WGLT: What was it that spoke to you during that residency?

Ward: I think it was this sense that I was standing in the gap with people and that it was my calling, as a priest, to stand in the gap between the sacred and the secular, the ordinary and the divine. That's the role of a priest, but it felt very, very real in the hospital setting. The moment you walk into a hospital, you're confronted with your mortality. I don't care whether you're brought here in an ambulance and literally fighting for your life, whether you're here to visit somebody, whether you're here to give birth to a baby or dropping off a pizza: Walking into a hospital confronts you with the frailty of the human condition. That year of time where I was just, day after day and night after night, confronting the brokenness, sometimes, and the amazing resilience of ... human bodies and human spirits was really what I think told me that I was walking on sacred ground. This is my church, this is my sacred space.

WGLT: When you put it like that, it does not sound like a job or an occupation for the faint-hearted.

Ward: People have said that. Sometimes people come to me and they say, 'How can you do that sort of thing? Doesn't it get to you?' There are certainly instances and encounters that are really heartbreaking, but that's part of why I feel like I'm in the right place, because it doesn't frighten me. Yes, it's uncomfortable. It is scary, sometimes. But it doesn't frighten me to move toward that — it enlivens me, honestly.

WGLT: So, logistically, how does a person do this job?

Ward: Here are Carle BroMenn, we have a chaplain on-duty all of the time: 24 hours a day, seven days a week, weekends, holidays, you name it. One of the things I'm proudest of during this pandemic is that we have not gone a single day, or a single night, or a single hour without having chaplain coverage available to our patients or their families and staff. Sometimes we're here physically within the building, sometimes we're within 15 minutes of the bedside. That's basically our rule of thumb in our department: We can be at the bedside in 15 minutes.

Our role is not to represent any particular faith tradition. I'm not shy about my faith tradition ... but when I'm here as a hospital chaplain, I'm not here to try to convince or convert or persuade anybody to anything. I'm really here to come alongside them at times when they're in grief, when they're in crisis, when they're in transition... to help them make meaning of what's happening to them.

That's different for every single visit. For one person, it might be prayer. For another person, it might emphatically not be prayer. It involves a lot of listening.

We try to make rounds on a regular basis. We try to visit people before they go into surgery. We respond to emergencies. If somebody has a heart stop, or they stop breathing, that's an automatic consult to the chaplain and... we're there to provide support. However, sometimes the biggest support we provide to patients is respecting them when they say, 'I'm not interested. Go away.' We completely respect that. Sometimes for patients whose boundaries have been violated in other parts of their life ... they really need to be empowered to just say, 'No.'

WGLT: So if you have your own spiritual tradition, how do you go into room after room and meet people where they're at, or wherever their tradition might be, or has been?

Ward: One of the things we try to do as an institution is approach each patient from the perspective of cultural humility. We approach it from a perspective that each of us comes at the world from our own perspective and that no one perspective is greater or lesser than another. I have to approach each person as an individual, with curiosity, with empathy, with some mutual vulnerability and authenticity of my own in order to relate with them, whatever their faith tradition is.

WGLT: Speaking of vulnerability, how has your role been impacted by COVID-19 restrictions?

Ward: I think, whatever their faith tradition, for many chaplains, the idea of showing up and being with is foundational to who we are and what we do. So, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, when it was really clear that we were not going to be able to show up and be with people in the way that we were used to, that was really hard. It was hard not to physically be able to hold people's hands, to not be able to hug a crying person who is wanting to fall into my arms, to keep that physical distance. That forced us to get creative: We were one of the first departments in the hospital to pioneer using iPads, setting up those encounters where we could talk to patients and families using iPads. For a while, we had telephone chaplains. So, it's not that the technology and being forced to use that was a burden — it's actually opened up this whole new possibility of how we can interact with people. But at the end of the day, I still think being able to reach out and hold onto somebody's hand and not have a glove in between me and them is really, really important.

WGLT: You've talked before about how you're not relegated to caring only for the patient in a bed, but also family or caregivers like nurses, techs, etc. Have you seen an increased demand for your services among fellow hospital workers?

Ward: I would say maybe an increased need, if not necessarily an increased demand. I think a lot of people in healthcare have it drilled into them — I don't know where, but over the years — to be pretty self sufficient and not to be a whiner, not to be needy, that kind of thing. I think sometimes that a lot of healthcare professionals may have needs to reach out to people about, but they're not always comfortable reaching out. I think if chaplains stand around, just waiting for the rest of the healthcare team to say, 'Oh, Chaplain, I'm really distressed right now, can I come talk to you? Can I make an appointment?' It's never going to happen. People are busy, people are stressed — they don't have time to make an appointment with the chaplain. What they need is somebody who's in the muck with them and can see, 'Wow, that's somebody I need to check-in on. That's somebody who needs a kind word. That's somebody who needs me to say, 'I see you.' At BroMenn, we wear black lab coats, so you know where the chaplain is. I've had people say that just looking across the room and knowing that the chaplain is there made a difference.

WGLT: We see sometimes in the daily COVID-19 reports that hospital beds are full — for whatever reason — so one more pandemic question: Did you seen an increase in requests for service during this time?

Ward: It comes in waves. When the hospital census has been higher, of course there's a request for more services in that regard. We've been busier because everybody in healthcare has been busier in these various waves of the pandemic. Something to keep in mind is that just because there's been more COVID patients, that doesn't mean that the other patients go away. People don't stop having heart attacks or strokes because there's a pandemic. So yes, in that sense, we've been very, very busy. Those cases that we would normally get called out to, we're still getting called out to. One chaplain might have three, or four or five — or six, eight or 10 they're responding to, so in that sense, yes, we've been much busier.

WGLT: What's something you wish people knew about the work of chaplains?

Ward: If there's one thing that I wish people would let go of, it's the idea that when the chaplain walks into the room, it means 'Oh my gosh I'm dying.' Sometimes it really is that serious and the chaplain was called for that reason, but for the most part, it's not that. It's that we, as an institution, are trying to recognize that people aren't just machines, they aren't just physical bodies, but they are whole people who need support for their whole person. We're there to be a nonjudgmental support. And when people start to ask those 'why' questions, those really hard questions, I don't have answers and I don't have to have answers. I don't think, for the most part, that people are looking for me to give them answers. I think they're looking for me to sit with them in that question. That can be one of the most healing and important things: Making space for those questions and not trying to give out easy, simple answers.

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