- Associated Press - Saturday, June 20, 2020

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) - The few months have brought a lot of fear of the unknown, and that has meant a lot of spiritual and existential distress for patients and their families grappling with illness during a pandemic.

At a time when their services are greatly needed, chaplains at area hospitals - individuals tasked with helping those individuals through emotional distress - have found the nature of their work has changed tremendously.

The spiritual care staff are tasked with providing the emotional and spiritual needs of patients, patients’ families and staff. They provide end-of-life counseling, are present for families following a tough diagnosis and support staff as they go about day-to-day duties.

Much of the work hospital chaplains do relies on in-person contact. But when COVID-19 came, “that totally changed.”

“We had to reinvent the wheel,” Mark McDermott, director of pastoral care at Mercy Medical Center, told The Gazette. “We had to figure out how to do our work from a distance.”

Chaplains typically make their rounds on floors throughout the hospital, but because of efforts to mitigate risk of exposure, they’re barred from the floors containing coronavirus positive and possible coronavirus positive patients. Those directly affected by the pandemic are where the pastoral staff has found some of the greatest need for emotional and religious support - among patients and their families.

Illness or death of a loved one is difficult under normal circumstances, but in the midst of the pandemic, there’s “an extra layer of emotional stress,” said Wyatt Dagit, lead chaplain and coordinator for UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital spiritual care.

The chaplains at the Cedar Rapids hospitals have continued offering services to patients by calling to their rooms and offering a listening ear. Dagit said they also reach out to families of coronavirus-positive patients, especially the loved ones of those who are intubated or otherwise unable to communicate.

Visitors are barred from the hospital in the majority of cases, except for special circumstances. In some cases, the only connection between families and a loved one’s condition is communication through the medical staff caring for them.

Dagit said frustration has been a common feeling among families of individuals battling a COVID-19 infection. For them, “there’s this feeling of helplessness and wishing they can do more.”

Members of the pastoral staff continue in-person visits throughout the in-patient floors and within the emergency department. Visitors still are banned for the majority of these patients.

“So as chaplains, aside from nurses and doctors, we may be the only people patients see for days or weeks at a time,” Dagit said.

But Dagit said they are still restricted from the usual way they would interact with someone in the hospital, such as putting a hand on their shoulder when they are crying.

“Even with just a mask and a face shield, it’s kind of its own layer of distance between us and the patient,” Dagit explained.

McDermott said he expects a long-term impact on many local residents as a result of the emotional distress felt during the pandemic. Especially for those who lost someone as a result of COVID-19 and weren’t able to be there in person for the death, McDermott said there’s an “unrelieved suffering.”

Even for the chaplains it can be overwhelming, he said.

“We’re learning each day how to do it and what we need to do, but we’re feeling overwhelmed ourselves,” McDermott said. “Everything seems to be amplified now.”

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