The nurse at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo was confiding with a chaplain about the challenges she faces as the coronavirus pandemic continues to worsen. Now 10 months into the crisis and with cases continuing to surge to record highs, COVID-19 has put immense stress on frontline health care workers — not only doctors and nurses, but a huge variety of employees not normally in the spotlight.
These include respiratory therapists, clinical laboratory scientists, phlebotomists, radiologists and imaging technologists, transporters, pharmacists and pharmacy techs, registration and admissions staff members, behavioral health specialists, EVS/housekeeping employees – the list goes on.
And health care leaders like Nickijo Hager, chief mission integration officer at Mission Hospital, are hearing story after story about how these frontline caregivers are relying on faith, self-care, and other practices to cope.
The nurse, as Hager recalled, mentioned to the chaplain the story in the Bible about how the apostles in the boat were terrified by the stormy waters.
As told in Matthew 8:23-27, Jesus awoke and calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee, and then rebuked the apostles:
“You of little faith, why are you so afraid?”
For the nurse, the COVID-19 pandemic is the stormy waters, and her faith is what’s giving her hope, Hager said.
“And I really love something the nurse said,” Hager recalled in a recent interview with six other faith leaders at Providence Health & Services, a Catholic health care system whose Orange County hospitals include Mission, St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, and St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton.
“She said, ‘I feel that camaraderie of my coworkers and appreciation from my patients,” Hager said. “I feel a sense of calling. And I feel that passion that comes with that calling. I feel a sense of duty to do what I have to do during the pandemic, and my faith is what gives me hope.”
SUPPORT FROM WITHIN
COVID-19 was a big challenge for hospitals in the beginning when it erupted in mid-March 2020.
As the pandemic has raged on and worsened this winter, health care workers are relying even more on colleagues, themselves, their families, and hospital spiritual leaders to continue doing their best to take care of the sick and dying.
“I was talking to one of our physicians who happens to be very involved in some of our clinical trials specific to COVID,” said Mark Jablonski, chief mission integration officer at St. Jude Medical Center. “He identified our commitment and mission to serve the poor and vulnerable. And he really likened this situation as part of living that mission out. Because in his mind, those individuals that are now facing COVID, whether it be as patients or as family members, find themselves feeling extremely vulnerable and not having a lot of answers.
“So, I asked him what keeps him going, and he said, ‘It’s that ability to feel like I’m contributing to that mission and that I’m contributing to the greater well-being of the community at large.’”
“And if you talk to our nurses,” Jablonski continued, “I think the thing that keeps them going is just their dependence on one another and their commitment to their healing profession. So, there’s a strong support group within their own ranks as they support and protect each other during these very difficult circumstances.”
Throughout the pandemic, hospitals have stepped up to make the lives of its employees easier, from setting up times for stressed-out workers to visit with chaplains, to selling diapers, toilet paper, and other essentials out of their cafeteria, and also helping with childcare by partnering with such organizations as the YMCA.
Sister Suzette Bautista, spiritual care manager at St. Joseph and St. Jude, mentioned the distribution of tiny bottles of holy water to patients and hospital employees to help people feel more connected to their faith at a time when churches are closed or very limited to in-person worship.
Such tiny but meaningful acts have gone a long way in boosting the spirits of health care workers.
Tim Bushy, Providence’ regional spiritual health officer for Southern California, recalls discussing “COVID fatigue” with some chaplains.
“It’s a reality, especially now that we’re in this second spike,” Bushy said. “We had a very spirit-filled conversation about what it means for us to live with uncertainty and still remained hope-filled. And as the sharing continued, one of the chaplains spoke about the importance of self-care, particularly around prayer, groundedness, and mindfulness.”
One doctor at Mission Hospital has drawn strength from his role as a stand-in for loved ones of patients who, because of COVID-19 restrictions, cannot visit the hospital.
The families have expressed their immense gratitude to the doctor, Hager said.
“And that is what keeps him going and continuing to give 100 percent of himself,” she said.