Hospital chaplaincy in the midst of a pandemic


In hospitals across the state, Texas Baptist chaplains are hard at work amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Protocols have changed, where bedside conversations have been replaced by phone calls and hugs have given way to encouraging smiles, but the Gospel message remains the same. 

Supporting struggling families and staff in Dallas

“The coronavirus has drastically altered the healthcare setting and life at the hospital, not just for the doctors and nurses but also for our chaplains, whose main role is to offer comfort, provide support and offer hope,” Candace Zelner, a chaplain at Baylor University Medical Center (BUMC) in Dallas, explained. “Those things remain unchanged, but the way we do ministry has radically changed. Chaplains have been asked to innovatively use research and collaborate with other chaplains systemwide as we try to figure out the best way to support and care for our patients.”

Chaplains at Texas Baptists’ partner health care institutions are supported by gifts to the Texas Baptists Cooperative Program. More than $618,000 is given annually to the four health care partners to provide spiritual care to patients and families across Texas.

Mark Grace, chief mission and ministry officer for Baylor Scott & White Health, has observed an increase in patients, staff and families seeking out spiritual guidance in these troubled times. 

Grace explained that by June 2020, there were 2,800 more staff visits across the Baylor Scott & White Health network than all of 2019. Doctors, nurses and all those working in the hospital are facing increased stress as they struggle to treat a virus with no known cure and risk contamination themselves as they interact with patients. 

In addition to providing spiritual counseling and support to those who need it, the Mission and Ministry Office also engaged with the local community to help churches adjust to online services. They also produced 25,000 face masks and 5,000 face shields for use in medical centers and non-profits. 

For Zelner, who serves as the bereavement officer in addition to her role as a chaplain, visitation restrictions have been the hardest change to hospital procedures. Usually, BUMC is full of families and friends visiting patients, but visitors have been severely restricted to prevent the potential spread of the coronavirus. For non-COVID-19 patients, one visitor is allowed per 24-hour period. For patients battling COVID-19, visitors are not allowed, except in end-of-life situations, where one visitor is allowed.

Zelner, who has studied the effects of grief during this pandemic, explained that, while these measures keep people safe, they often prevent grief from being processed. To combat this, Zelner has compiled bereavement packages to help families dealing with a loss. In the package, there is a letter signed by all of the doctors, nurses and hospital staff who worked directly with the deceased family member. There is also an EKG strip of the patient’s heart rhythm from before they passed. 

Zelner called the daughter of a man who had recently passed away from COVID-19 to explain the bereavement package. The woman was excited to receive the package and said she would make copies of the EKG strip to pass out to other family members. 

“With all the changes that the coronavirus has brought, the one thing that has not changed is our capacity and our ability to journey with our patients and our families,” Zelner said. “This bereavement package we have put together gives us an opportunity to offer hope and comfort in a way that is different but still important.”

Providing spiritual care in Houston

In Houston, Silvia Briones, a Texas Baptist chaplain and River Ministry missionary, has  served at Houston Methodist Hospital as a PRN chaplain. Briones is only called in to serve as a chaplain when the situation demands. When the COVID-19 outbreak began, the hospital reached out to her and asked if she would serve. Though Briones was initially hesitant because she and her husband could fall into an at-risk category, she did not have peace about staying home while people in the hospital needed to hear from the Lord, so she went to work. 

As a chaplain, Briones provides emotional and spiritual support to patients, family members, staff and anyone else who needed it in the hospital. She explained that it has been harder than usual to minister to patients, as visits are extremely limited to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus. To communicate with patients, Briones calls them over the phone. If necessary, she makes visits to non-COVID-19 patients, but only in extreme situations. 

As the only Spanish-speaking chaplain at the hospital, Briones felt a burden to reach out specifically to patients who could not speak English. 

“It’s been a blessing because I know a lot of the people are missing the spiritual and emotional care that others can have because they don’t speak the language,” she explained. 

Furthermore, Briones has used her experiences as a chaplain to train others to do the same. She has held online seminars for a group of pastors and volunteers in Ecuador who wanted to minister to those affected by COVID-19, including those who have recovered and the family members of those that have passed away. 

The webinars are in partnership with the Baptist Medical Association in Ecuador, which has been instrumental in recruiting pastors to help with this effort. They approached Briones about training them so that they would be able to better respond to the specific needs people impacted by the virus are facing. So far, four sessions have taken place, and Briones has plans for more in the near future. 

The work that Briones, Grace and Zelner are doing is just a small look into chaplain ministry across the country. In the midst of much uncertainty, these chaplains provide hope and care to patients and family members in need.

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