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Limiting 'Spiritual Distress': Hospital Chaplains To Continue Care Amid COVID-19

Frankie Graziano
Connecticut Public Radio
Nancy Donovan, Saint Francis Hospital's coordinator of spiritual care, said she's prepared to treat patients with COVID-19 if they're in need of human contact.

The essential duties of a hospital chaplain happen on-site where patients are treated, so it’s hard to work from home at a time when employers are encouraging social distancing to combat the spread of coronavirus.

Nancy Donovan, Saint Francis Hospital’s coordinator of spiritual care, said listening is a key skill for chaplains, who help people “pull out what resources they have internally” by being “attentive listeners” to their personal stories.

Right now, such support can be crucial, especially because hospital visitors are limited to those saying a final goodbye to a loved one or welcoming a newly delivered baby. Donovan wants people to imagine what that type of social isolation could do to someone with COVID-19.

“That can cause spiritual distress -- when you feel so isolated and so alone -- they are in a sense our current-day lepers because no one wants to go near them because they’re afraid to pick it up,” Donovan said.

The hospital told Connecticut Public Radio that it can’t confirm whether it has a COVID-19 patient. But if there were one, Donovan said that patient would have the same access to chaplain services as any other patient.

“Could I get sick? Absolutely, but I’m not going to let that impede me from doing what I feel I’m called to do and to be a companion to someone at this time in their need,” Donovan said.

She said she and the hospital staff will take extra precautions should they serve patients who show signs of COVID-19. That plan includes a telephone connection.

But if Donovan thinks someone is in serious need of human contact, she’ll prepare for an in-room visit. Since that would involve wearing protective equipment, she’ll have to weigh the patient’s needs with the anticipated scarcity of items like gowns and surgical masks.

Part of spiritual care also includes serving Holy Communion to patients and working with priests to ensure those in grave condition can receive last rites. Donovan said that kind of work has to continue, and she doesn’t expect the hospital to shut it down any time soon.

Frankie Graziano is the host of 'The Wheelhouse,' focusing on how local and national politics impact the people of Connecticut.

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