Prayers, advocacy and phone calls: the life of a hospital chaplain during COVID-19

·3 min read
Royal University Hospital is one of the hospitals Jackie Saretsky serves as a chaplain. (CBC - image credit)
Royal University Hospital is one of the hospitals Jackie Saretsky serves as a chaplain. (CBC - image credit)

As Saskatchewan hospitals are stretched to the limit during this fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, chaplains are still finding ways to bring spiritual care to patients.

Jackie Saretsky is a Catholic hospital chaplain in Saskatoon. She says the pandemic has radically altered the way she does her job.

"In a time of crisis, you basically throw away your plan," she said. "You throw away your formula for chaplaincy work and you have to completely adopt a new formula.

"You go from normal, calm visiting from patient to patient to … putting out fires."

From the start of the pandemic, Saretsky says she and the rest of the team of hospital chaplains and volunteers took great precautions to make sure they could keep doing this work.

"I did definitely have to limit where I was going, especially when the restrictions were a lot tighter," she said. "I didn't want to lose the ability to go into the hospitals, and I didn't ever want to put myself in a place where that would be compromised."

And Saretsky says many patients — whether or not they have COVID-19 — are extremely lonely and desperate to see their loved ones as pandemic restrictions also limit who can come into the hospital to be with them.

"They grieve," said Saretsky. "They grieve a lot about their suffering.... Even those who are suffering from a serious illness or a serious operation, they couldn't have family support there, so they were looking to us.

"So a lot of them are grieving that loss, and there is a lot of fear because they are alone. And you really see at this time how much patients depend on family members to be there and be that moral support."

Over the last 20 months, Saretsky says technology-wrangling has become an important part of how she provides spiritual care. She will organize phone conversations with patients' families and make sure her patients' cell phones are never out of charge or out of reach.

But sometimes, there is no replacing those in-person visits, as Saretsky learned with one patient who she says "made me redefine what success is in hospital chaplaincy."

This patient, who had been doing well and been hoping to go home soon, was starting to become sicker week after week — but she still was not allowed to have her family with her because of the hospital's rules on visitors during the pandemic.

"She didn't qualify — you had to be greviously ill or in palliative care," Saretsky said. "One day I went in her room, and her affect was so flat. She was just staring out the window and she said, 'can you help me?' And my heart just went out to her because I thought okay, we're here … but really what she needs is her son."

So Saretsky advocated to the rest of the patient's care team, and the woman's son was able to come to the hospital and be with her in person.

"A few weeks later, the nurse phoned down to our office at the hospital and told us that this patient had passed away," said Saretsky. "And I was so thankful that she did that. She didn't have to — nurses don't have to call down and let us know when patients pass away. But … I needed that as closure."

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And while Saretsky is proud of the work she has been able to do, she says the pandemic has also brought new challenges to her role that will stick with her long after all this is over.

"We want to create happiness and support people and leave them in a good place," she said. "But during this time, it's difficult, because you know you're walking away from the room and they're still in a depression or lonely and there's this difficult heart pain you have to deal with and realize that that's part of the role of the hospital chaplain."

"It has definitely deepened my faith, because we have to go somewhere with this heart pain."

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