Chaplaincy on the NHS frontline
As we applaud key workers, we also remember our hospital chaplains as they minister to sick and frightened patients, as well as anxious hospital staff. Here the Revd Michael Marsden, lead chaplain at Nevill Hall Hospital, Abergavenny, describes how his role has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Listening to the radio recently I heard people sending messages to friends and family, some adding at the end, ‘When lockdown is over, we’ll get together and have a party!’
I can understand the desire for this, but at the same time urge people to be patient and cautious. Working within the hospital setting certainly focuses the mind. Daily we see gowned and masked staff bravely working and ‘going the extra mile’, we stand alongside very sick and frightened patients, and listen to the concerns and fears of families, separated from their loved ones, and sadly witness the needless deaths of both the young and old.
Life has changed for all of us since March and in hospitals it is has changed dramatically.
It’s fairly quiet in A&E, which raises its own concerns regarding those patients who should be presenting themselves, but are afraid to do so in case they catch the virus. The corridors are unusually quiet due to the lack of visitors and outpatients, and only those operations deemed urgent are happening. Within the life of the hospital some staff have been re-deployed whilst many have had to think of new ways of doing their work, which can be both unsettling and difficult.
Chaplains minister to the hospital community which consists of patients, families and staff. We are able to visit and give communion to COVID patients who are no longer in ITU, as well as all the other patients, none of whom are able to have visitors from outside. The wearing of a mask, gloves, apron and visor (PPE), which can be an hindrance to making meaningful encounters, are now part of our daily ‘vestments’, the ministry of ‘touch’ such as holding a hand, which often communicates far more than words can, is no longer permitted, whilst administering Holy Communion at the bedside truly becomes the ‘medicine of the soul’.
There have been some very precious moments when asked to pray over the phone with a COVID patient in ITU in the hope of offering ‘Peace at the end’, as well as offering prayer and comfort to bereaved families. These pastoral encounters will stay in the memory for a long time.
As visitors are no longer able to visit we are frequently requested to visit loved ones on their behalf, being a link to the church and the outside world. This may also involve delivering toiletries and pyjamas which have kindly been donated by members of the Mothers’ Union and other organisations.
Our ministry to staff has increased. We often can be seen having corridor chats, or offering a listening ear and hospitality in the chapel, also working alongside a team of psychologists to offer support as and when events unfold. Our chapel is open all day, every day and is well used, as evidenced by the number of prayer requests pinned on the prayer board.
The atmosphere is at times tense, and at times fearful, even though the hospital was well prepared and appears to have the situation under control - although this can change very quickly. I’ve always maintained that to work in healthcare you need to have a sense of humour, and behind closed doors and out of the public eye, it certainly helps to get you through the day. There’s no doubt that the local shops’ generosity in providing food and the clapping on a Thursday does a lot to lift spirits.
As chaplains, we feel valued and appreciated. People like to have a calming presence around, which is epitomised by the chaplain. And at a time of crisis people’s minds are often focused on life and death issues and priorities change. That’s often when the chaplain is most needed.
Of course I’m concerned for the health of myself and family, and try to follow all the guidance provided. I feel well protected by staff and we tend to look out for each other. I am greatly fulfilled in what I do, and glad to be able to carry on my ministry. We are also very grateful to all those who have contacted us, assuring us of their thoughts and prayers – that is very much appreciated.
So while I understand how people might be running out of patience with the lockdown please listen to the guidance given to us and show love and respect towards each other.
To find out how to contact the chaplaincy team at your nearest hospital, contact your health authority or find them listed on its website.