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In this file photo from August 2019, Theresa Platt and Scott Sprunger talk about starting their Clinical Pastorial Education at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health.

Connecting with patients by digital means, holding phone and Zoom prayer conferences for hospital staffs, standing in for family members with a dying COVID-19 victim.

This is part the new reality for hospital chaplains. Because family members and outside clergy are not allowed into hospitals, chaplains are on the front lines more than ever.

“Responding to the COVID pandemic gives us a totally new context for what this work looks like,” said McCaskey and Union Theological Seminary graduate Scott Sprunger. “At the same time … we are doing exactly what we signed up to do.”

Sprunger is one of four residents in Lancaster General Health’s clinical pastoral education program who are having to navigate new norms in hospital settings.

That includes using technology to meet with patients.

“Being in the hospital is not an easy thing to go through, and it is even harder if you don’t have the people you love there to support you,” Sprunger said. “We’re having to do a lot more work to connect people digitally.”

Digital connections

Theresa Platt, an Oregon native who also is part of the education program, said using digital means to connect with patients initially seemed strange.

 “I think the first time I spoke to a patient on the phone instead of going to their room felt very unusual. We’re doing essentially the same job, but I think it looks very different now.”

The Rev. Peter Kuhn

The Rev. Peter Kuhn

Sprunger said one of his more difficult days involved helping an ill patient connect with family.

“I held somebody’s phone for them so they could Facetime their spouse. It was such a heartbreaking visit even though I was just a fly on the wall. A lot of staff here would love nothing more than to connect families to one another so it’s really hard to be restricting that now for everyone’s safety.”

Because family members and outside clergy are barred from the hospital, chaplains also have taken the place of family members when a patient is dying.

“Our role is very different now when someone is dying, so we’re standing in for basically everything,” Platt said. “It feels like there’s more deaths that I’m present at than before.”

Similar pastoring is taking place at WellSpan Health hospitals, including Ephrata.

Supporting staff

“We do a lot of our visits through phone calls or other social media,” said the Rev. Peter Kuhn, the system’s director of Spiritual Care and Education.

Ruthann Dwyer

Ruthann Dwyer

Six of the hospitals in the WellSpan system have received COVID-19 patients. Kuhn said that while three of the hospitals — York, Gettysburg and Chambersburg — have chaplains in house, chaplains work from home in the other hospitals and are called for in-person meetings if the patient faces an end-of-life scenario or the family requests a chaplain and the clinical staff agrees.

Ruthann Dwyer, director of pastoral services at WellSpan Philhaven, a nonprofit behavioral health care organization, said they also are counseling support staff at their facilities.

“Our whole system, both in spiritual care as well as Philhaven in general, we’re doing a lot of work for staff support,” she said. “That’s one of our main things we’re focusing on.”

That includes an hourlong Zoom call every Friday in which nurses and other health care workers can call in to offer prayers.

“We’re having a hospitalwide prayer conference call once a week, inclusive of all traditions, where folks can call in and pray together,” she said.

The first week the call-in service was offered, there were more callers than the system could handle, so Kuhn said they switched to Zoom call, which has a greater capacity.

He said the prayers represent a wide range of concerns.

 “There were prayers for those who are in nursing homes — either working or residents — prayers for the COVID clients and their families and prayers for those who are facing the illness alone in a hospital and prayers for the families who want to be there.”

LGH chaplains also are working with hospital staff.

The Rev. Keith Espenshade

The Rev. Keith Espenshade

“That’s a big part of our role right now,” Sprunger said. “I am having a whole lot more conversations with staff members who have a wide array of concerns about the pandemic. Chief among them is the question of rising to the occasion and protecting people who really do need the kind of help that is offered here in the hospital.”

Platt added, “I’m very impressed with the way that staff at LGH are dealing with this. This is hard and this is something we haven’t experienced before.”

The Rev. Keith Espenshade, who oversees the clinical pastoral education program at Lancaster General Hospital, said the pandemic’s impact on LGH is unprecedented.  

“The only thing this reminds me of during my time here is the SARS outbreak. I was involved in some of the preparation work for that … but we didn’t have the local infection that we anticipated might come,” he said.

“But nothing else in my career has compared to this.”

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