As COVID rages on we regularly see TV footage of health care professionals in hospitals. Yet barely visible is a small group of essential caregivers, often volunteers, who provide care for the soul, the Spiritual Care Teams.
I recently met some of these caregivers inside the Chinook Regional Hospital (CRH) in Lethbridge. After navigating entrance protocol to rival a military base, I was met by Annella Wehlage, the Roman Catholic Spiritual Care Coordinator. She guided me to her office in a quiet section of the ‘tower’ office block. There I met John Moerman, the Hospital Chaplain, and the Indigenous Wellness Core, comprised of Sylvia Ann Fox/”Singing Alone From Above” (Traditional Wellness Coordinator) and Suzan Heavyshields (Indigenous Hospital Liaison). This small group explained how they work together to provided spiritual care needs to patients, and how COVID has changed what they do.
Wehlage has been a volunteer since 2015 following a long career as a nurse. She outlined her daily routine which used to begin with a list of patients who designated a religious affinity on their admittance paperwork. She and the team would discuss a plan and then begin what Moerman referred to with a smile as ‘rounds’, or personal visits to each patient desiring spiritual care. However, COVID has changed all that.
Now the imperative to prevent cross-contamination has reduced visitors to just one per patient, usually a family member. A second professional visitor is permitted in certain circumstances, e.g., a legal counsellor or a priest. And a limited number of additional visitors are permitted in end-of-life situations.
So now the Spiritual Care Team can only visit a patient when specifically referred by family or nursing staff, or in an end-of-life situation. Wehlage is saddened by the loss of her four-person team of volunteer Eucharistic ministers who used to faithfully help her to bring the Eucharist to everyone who wanted it. Now Wehlage’s main responsibility is arranging for a priest to visit when requested. This she does with the help of a weekly roster and an ‘on-call’ list for weekends and evenings. There is always a priest available 24/7.
The six priests on the list work tirelessly to bring the Sacrament of the Sick and the Sacrament of Reconciliation to patients, sometimes visiting the same person more than once. Their presence in the hospital is a blessing for more than just the patients. Not infrequently, a family member will also ask for a sacrament. The day I visited, Wehlage paused at a coffee kiosk in the hospital atrium where the barista told her how gratifying it was for her to simply see a parish priest walk by because her shift schedule made it impossible to attend Mass.
Another uplifting aspect of Spiritual Care at CRH is how First Nation’s spirituality is often combined with Catholicism, for First Nations patients. Team member Fox explained, “Some people, their parents were strong Catholics and their grandparents were strong in our traditional ways.” So team members offer both forms of religious care concurrently. Moerman added, “That’s how God created us, with a traditional background, a family background, a cultural background, all together.”
The CRH Spiritual Care Team and the Indigenous Wellness Core are clearly cohesive. “We’re friends outside of work”, Wehlage said, “We support one another.” They also work together to accomplish some extraordinary feats. Fox told of one gravely sick man whose wedding plans were interrupted by his illness. When she visited she found his fiancée present. She asked if there was anything she might help them with and they answered, “We’d like to get married this afternoon!” Fox and Wehlage executed a frenzy of arrangements from legal paperwork, securing a priest and arranging a special exemption for two family witnesses. Then they peeked in from the hallway to watch two people realize a dream that COVID couldn’t take from them.
More commonly the teams deal with end-of-life situations. “Sometimes if patients get a difficult diagnosis nurses will request a spiritual care visit,” Wehlage said. She also makes a point of accompanying the priest in cases where the Sacrament of the Sick is administered, especially if it was requested by family members who aren’t permitted to visit due to COVID restrictions. “If a patient sees a priest arrive unannounced at their bedside, they may get scared,” Wehlage said. The teams have many times sat with a person during their final hours. Fox explained softly, “Nobody wants to be alone when they’re going.”
When asked how else COVID has changed their work, the teams agreed that the hospital was much quieter with fewer visitors. That makes the teams’ work more important than ever. “Patient care can’t be done from home,” Moerman said. He added, “I don’t treat a patient with COVID any differently.” Nevertheless, additional precautions are necessary both at work and when returning home. Moerman said, “Early on I had a knot in my stomach, especially as my wife was baby-sitting our grandkids at home. I would put my clothes in the laundry as soon as I got home. I still do.” He admitted to turning off the news some days as well, “You have to limit COVID news or the fear can rise in you.” Wehlage spoke of baking as a stress-reliever and Fox had taken up traditional beading and making moccasins.
Asked if they have a message for the readers of Faithfully, the teams had excellent suggestions.
“Follow best practices, listen to the advice of professionals so we don’t overwhelm the 14-bed ICU at our hospital.”
“If you know of somebody who’s Catholic and in hospital, notify their parish priest because the person might not have been at church for some time and their family might be too distracted to think of it.”
“Check in with your extended family, just to talk, a wellness check.”
It’s obvious that, both on and off the job, caring is deeply engrained in the nature of spiritual caregivers. Let us remember and pray for them in a special way this month.
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers