As Father Mark Stang prepares to see a patient, he dons protective equipment — a gown, mask and gloves. He isn’t a doctor, although his job is just as crucial. Father Stang is a chaplain tending to the spiritual needs of those who are ill, their families and the staff at St. Cloud Hospital.
The job of the hospital’s chaplains has changed in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
“When I minister I often think of Jesus and how he is so close, approachable, intimate, reaching out with a healing touch,” Father Stang said. “I still desire to minister in that way. However, it is more challenging now when I walk into a patient’s room wearing protective gear like a mask and goggles, and sometimes gloves, gowns and a powered air-purifying respirator. I am still able to anoint and hold their hand but it is with a glove on,” he said.
Members of the spiritual care team at St. Cloud Hospital are still visiting patients face to face — while wearing protective gear — and helping them use technology to connect with family members who are not able to visit them because of policies in place to protect against the virus.
“One of the challenges I find hard … is not being able to let family members be with their loved ones at a time when they need their presence the most,” Father Stang said. “Phone calls and video chats are very helpful, but it is not the same as a physical presence — a hug or holding a loved one’s hand.”
Visits with patients are longer and more in-depth these days, said chaplain Anita Fischer. Patients miss closer contact with their families and church communities.
When she receives the list of patients and their families to connect with each day, she spends time intentionally holding those people in prayer, learning a bit about why they are in the hospital and asking God to guide her work and conversations, she said.
“For Catholic patients especially, some express feelings of loss around not being able to receive Communion,” Fischer said. “This is an opportunity to talk about what they find important about the Eucharist and to articulate what they are missing about it.”
Fischer thinks being able to share in this way helps people feel a sense of connection with the Lord that they may not have felt before.
“It is important to name those feelings of loss so that, when we are all able to gather again to receive the sacrament, we can receive it with newfound desire and joy,” she said.
And it’s not just patients that are facing this crisis without their support system.
When Fischer goes home after work, her husband, Don, isn’t there. He moved out seven weeks ago to temporarily live with his father.
“With my trips back and forth to the hospital, we felt that if Don was going to continue to be able to physically check on his dad safely, he needed to significantly limit contact with me,” she said.
They agreed it was the right thing to do, and it helps her to continue to focus on the bigger picture.
“I would say that, during this time of pandemic, my faith has not been challenged, but the ways in which I exercise and experience faith has been challenged,” Fischer said. “I am very drawn to the communal nature of faith, and I deeply miss the liturgy and ability to celebrate the Eucharist with my family and friends. Coming together to worship as the Body of Christ has always recharged my own sense of mission and purpose.”
During this time, she is grateful to still be able to offer support to patients, colleagues and staff, she said. She is more intentional in her interactions with hospital staff, seeing how they are doing personally before she meets with them about their patients.
“As chaplains, we try to make ourselves available to provide emotional support to staff, and we are always trying to notice staff who might look like they are having a tough day,” she said.
She tries to encourage them to be mindful of their own needs throughout the day. Small actions, like mindful breaths, can help to mitigate some of the stress, and focusing on caring for themselves outside of work is even more important now, she said.
“I am in awe of the liturgy that unfolds in the hospital each day,” Fischer said. “Liturgy is the ‘work of the people’ and there is much work being done every day in our facilities to provide for our patients and care for each other.”
Father Stang agrees that the work can be emotionally stressful for staff, especially when a patient’s health is declining — no matter what their illness is — and they are unable to have their family with them. Keeping the family updated is an extra level of stress, he said.
Staff members are often a source of strength for him.
“I find that the staff minister to me,” Father Stang said. “They share their prayer life with me and the different ways of caring for themselves and how they get their support. I am amazed at how some can be so caring and present to the patients and then go home after a long day and be a wife, mother/father and teacher.
The spiritual care team is trained in “critical incident stress debriefing,” according to Father Stang. They have been trained to help in traumatic situations like bombs, or natural disasters like tornados. They are able to help people process traumatic events to help them become more resilient and feel secure, he said.
“What is unique and challenging about this particular crisis is that it is ongoing and still looming with uncertainties for our future,” Father Stang said.
“My prayer is ‘Lord make me ready,’” he said. “I want to be ready for whatever happens that is beyond my control. I pray this not only for myself, but for the people of God.”
Because there have been 10 deaths in Stearns County due to the coronavirus as of May 16, Father Stang, who is a cancer survivor, says he has found himself thinking about death and his own mortality during this time.
“I may die from COVID-19 or I may not, but I know I will die someday,” he said. “I have been blessed with 30 extra years of life on this earth, to me that is an enormous grace in itself.
“[Every day] I say a prayer of thanksgiving for having the honor of being with the dying just before they go into the next world,” he said.