Indiana hospital chaplain: entire shift ‘consumed’ with helping people die of COVID-19

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MUNCIE, Ind. – The coronavirus pandemic has forced many hospital chaplains to get creative with how they offer spiritual support to patients in times of personal crisis.

Rev. Kate Ester Johnston, a staff chaplain at Indiana University Health Ball Medical Center in Muncie, said her way of being a chaplain has always been supporting patients in end of life care.

She said Wednesday was one of the most difficult days she has experienced on the job.

“Today is the first day where my ENTIRE shift was consumed with helping people die of COVID-19,” she wrote in a Facebook post now shared by IU Health.

In the candid post, Ester Johnston wrote, “While many of my shifts have been consumed with helping people die all day, I have never had a day in chaplaincy where I helped everyone die of the exact same thing.”

“This is just a small window into healthcare as I’m the chaplain. I witnessed a whole team of people pouring into these lives today—nurses in full PPE doing rounds of chest compressions, dripping sweat, and then continuing with care for more patients right after,” she shared.

“Since this pandemic began, I have helped people in their 20s die of this virus and people in their 90s…all from outside a window while I send two loved ones in alone in full PPE to say goodbye,” wrote Ester Johnston.

In an interview Thursday with FOX59, she said, “Usually there’s a break in my day of, oh I’ll go see a little old woman who wants to tell me her stories and I’ll pray with her, or there’s some break in my day that brings me something else. Yesterday wasn’t that for my staff.”

“We had four chaplains in and at one point we were all working a different death,” said Ester Johnston.

“We’re all doing our jobs and what we’re called to do, and we all have purpose in it, but I need people to know our nurses, our EVS workers, our nutrition services workers, everyone’s tired,” she said.

Hospital Chaplains at IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital are unable to go into the room of a COVID-19 patient, forcing them to find ways to connect with patients and their families from outside closed doors.

“We’re all trying to think creatively as we go and offer the best care we can.”

This is what Ester Johnston said her role looked like pre-pandemic: “If I’ve had a patient for three weeks I know their story, I’ve led a life review, I know what has made them laugh in life and made them cry in life and I’m able to incorporate that at the end with the family.”

“I treat every patient like they’re my grandmother or grandfather and I stroke their hair while they pass away because that is what I would want for my own grandparent. That’s what I would want for myself,” she said.

Right now, Ester Johnston said ailing patients with COVID-19 are being accompanied by nurses and respiratory therapists in their final moments. “it’s been finding ways to support them. It’s never really been their job before,” she said.

She said she has found unique ways to offer comfort and spiritual guidance to patients in the hospital. “I kind of put up a blessing on everyone’s door.”

“At the beginning of the day I would kind of just go up to the nurses station and say who’s intubated and can’t talk to their family today because those are the calls, I would make first,” she said.

“If a patient can’t talk to me and I can’t call into the room, I know nothing about them, so I would call their families and say, “what’s important to them? What’s something I can say over speakerphone into their room, something the nurse could say?’”

She said, for some patients it was a poem, while for others it was song lyrics or a religious tradition. In one case, she said, “For one husband it was their anniversary, but they were separated so we read their anniversary note that he left throughout the day.”

Ester Johnston said she speaks to families of patients on the phone and lets them know she will do whatever she can to make their loved ones’ transition as human as possible, despite the physical barriers standing in the way.

“I just said to them on the phone like honestly, this is hard,” she said. “This isn’t what I would dream of saying goodbye to a loved one, but let’s make this the most meaningful we can.”

Johnston shared, “I’ve had some very difficult days of helping babies die, holding them while their parents are passing away and I’ve had some very difficult pieces of ministry in the hospital. That’s part of what I do.”

She said right now, one of the most difficult parts of her job is watching the toll the pandemic is taking on her coworkers.

“Research shows our bodies hold trauma.  That’s part of why I’m a chaplain, so we’re holding that in right now, all of us are, and we’re gonna have to find a way to work through that during the pandemic and after the pandemic. All of us are,” she said.

“I have a shirt I always wear at the hospital that says you are enough because I feel like I have to remind myself, nurses of that, that like what we are doing is enough in the midst of that.”

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