S.C. healthcare chaplains offering compassion, hope in challenging times

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the state, hospital chaplains have found new ways to provide a “ministry of presence” to critically ill patients and to family members who cannot be with their sick, and possibly dying, loved ones.

“We have heard about the heroic actions of frontline doctors and nurses serving selflessly during this global pandemic. They certainly deserve our thanks and our prayers,” said Tim R., who leads the missions mobilization team with the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

“Rarely mentioned in all the headlines, however, are dedicated men and women providing much needed support, counseling, and a listening ear for our healthcare workers, families and patients. They are the chaplains,” he said.

Donna Peele and Paul Hamilton are two of South Carolina Baptists’ healthcare chaplains who are willingly placing their health at risk to provide compassion and hope to some of the more than 3,656 people who have become ill statewide during the pandemic that, as of mid-April, already had claimed at least 107 lives.

Peele, a member of St. Andrews Baptist Church in Columbia, serves as chaplain at Lexington Medical Center, and Hamilton, a member of the Baptist Church at Beaufort, serves as chaplain at Orangeburg Regional Medical Center.

Peele, who has worked both with hospice and at the Lexington hospital since 2002, said Southern Baptist chaplains are in a process of redefining “presence” during the pandemic.

Chaplains are providing the critical missing link of care between patients and families who must keep physically distant to avoid exposure. To do so, some are using technological tools, such as cell phones, FaceTime, Zoom, and social media, to connect with patients and to help families reach out to loved ones.

“Being present has always meant being with someone,” Peele said. “Now we are with them on the phone, using technology, and we are with them through active listening and intentional wording.”

“We continue to minister to the medical staff when we are present on the floors, as we’ve always done,” said Hamilton. Some churches have sent encouraging words to Hamilton, and he tries to share those with the staff to encourage them, too. 

But chaplains also are courageously ministering to coronavirus patients and their families, noted Hamilton, a 34-year veteran and former two-term president of the Society of Chaplains with the South Carolina Hospital Association. “If we cannot go into a patient’s room, we use what we now call ‘tele-chaplaincy.’ We call the patient’s room and talk with them by phone, if possible.”

Hamilton has found that calling their families to minister to them can be very beneficial. “Families and patients talk a lot and are often anxious,” especially since they cannot visit in the rooms, Hamilton said. “They are very grateful that we called, and feel better connected with their loved ones through us.”

COVID-19 patients often are located in isolated areas, and chaplains cannot routinely go there in order to preserve personal protective equipment and prevent the spread of the virus. But, by expressing empathy to patients and family members, chaplains are still conveying God’s “presence,” even though they are unable to be with them in person.

Peele sends out encouragement to patients with thoughts, prayers and jokes. “First, it was just prayers, but I soon realized the need for humor was real, and by adding a joke to the email, people will read it all,” she explained. “Healthcare people work with a lot of sadness and life-and-death stuff. Humor, even corny humor, helps us lighten the load.”

In the intensive care unit, patients do not have phones, and many are unable to use technology due to their condition. So Peele calls family members to talk to them, assuring them of prayers for them as well as for the patient’s recovery. As a chaplain, she provides a much-needed, calming connection for those who aren’t able to be at a patient’s bedside now.

Not being able to come to the hospital has made it very hard on families, Hamilton agreed. “We not only use phone calls, but we also have FaceTimed with families so they could see their loved ones face-to-face. This helps a lot, particularly if the patient is not doing well and their future is uncertain,” he said. “Perhaps the hardest thing is helping a family member visit with their loved one for the last time.”

>In Lexington, Peele promotes a community card drive where children make cards that chaplains can share with the patients. She suggests that churches with hospital patients also can send cards, phone the patients, and especially call their families.

“Please do not ignore them,” she urged. “Pray with them over the phone! Go to the door and talk to them through the glass. It is so important to do something that expresses concern and understanding.”

Churches can help just by continuing to be the church at this difficult time, Hamilton agreed. “While it is imperative that we stay home (and stay safe), churches can send encouragement to those who are sick and to caregivers who are serving on the frontlines,” he said.

“Many healthcare workers have children at home, and they are stressed. They worry about taking the virus home, and they worry about all the same things everyone else does while they care for the sickest people,” Peele added. “Remember them in prayer by name. Call and encourage them, and acknowledge that the burden they carry is heavy.”

Peele said she has seen doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel show great kindnesses to each other and to the patients and their family members during the pandemic. “They hold hands and wipe tears. They pray, and they place phone calls. They brush hair and comfort,” she said. “They try to be family during the time when family members are not allowed to visit.”

Without chaplains, however, these doctors, nurses and other medical staff may burn out much more quickly, and the patients and their families would not have the support they need when facing difficult situations like the COVID-19 crisis, said Tim R. “I want to say a big ‘thank-you’ to our chaplains for serving our nation with humility and a genuine spirit of service that our Lord Jesus demonstrated for us,” he said.