Masks become compulsory in shops from Friday. Martin Abrams and Jan Fraser, chaplains at Southport and Ormskirk hospitals, reflect on their work with patients and families affected by Covid-19 – and the duty on all of us to keep one another safe.
Our aim as chaplains is to offer pastoral, spiritual and religious support to patients and staff appropriate to their circumstances and understanding. We do this through individual patient visits, ward visits and by being a presence at the heart of the organisation. We are proud that one of the first doors you come to from the main entrance to our hospitals is the Chaplaincy and Spiritual Care Office.
Covid-19 has, of course, been a massive challenge to everyone. It has been a challenge to society with offices, shops and the leisure industry closing. A lot of industry ground to a halt. Many individuals were shielding and just about everyone was prevented from seeing their loved ones. Weddings were postponed, funerals went ahead but with previously unimaginable restrictions, and we have handed over control of our lives to others.
The Church has had to find new ways of working, and like many other organisations may never, and some would argue should never, be the same again.
For the NHS and hospital chaplaincy, the changes were fast and unprecedented with the many routine workings of the hospital sacrificed for a total focus on supporting the seriously ill and those with Covid-19.
Practically for us, by mid-March volunteers had been asked to stay away and relatives, other than in extreme circumstances, were stopped from coming to the hospital. As I write, many of these restrictions remain in place. With no volunteers and some of the chaplaincy team needing to shield, Jan and I rearranged our work accordingly and, with the support of one honorary chaplain and one part-time “on call” chaplain, have been supporting the staff and patient community throughout.
We have been privileged to be able to offer a “thought for the week” for staff, which has been well received, and have been working at every level of the hospital to offer support.
We had the unthinkable task of supporting the family of our colleague, nurse Josephine Peter, who died of the virus, and on their behalf planning and taking her funeral. The “clap past” arranged on the day of her funeral, as her cortege passed outside, was incredibly moving.
We have been trained in using masks and full PPE and have, at times, looked more like space travellers than chaplains. However, this has enabled us to offer ministry in all areas of the hospital, including our intensive care unit. On many occasions we have held the hands of dying patients when their family could not be there, sometimes holding phones to help conversations happen.
There was unprecedented need for our support. It was physically and emotionally draining.
As well as supporting the hospital community, we were asked to do a large number of funerals on the basis we were with patients when their families could not. In more routine situations we were visiting Covid and non-Covid patients and had the privilege of being their only visitors and in this unique circumstance sharing conversation, news and support.
Other staff and teams have, of course, done many incredible things offering, among other things, facility for families to communicate with families via video calls and deliver letters sent by email. In many cases, our staff needed to read out these messages for those unable to do so for themselves.
As the unpredictable virus worked its horror, we saw the horrendous, the miraculous and, from the whole hospital team, incredible acts of self-sacrifice.
In terms of theological and spiritual reflection, it is perhaps a bit early yet. Processing life changing experiences must shape our faith and outlook on life and cannot be rushed into. That said, over the last months, we have had the privilege of offering a servant ministry, which is what chaplains do all the time.
I have heard it said many times during the Covid pandemic, “the Church has not closed; it has simply left the building”. Hospital chaplaincy and spiritual care services have been doing this for years. Specifically, we have left the church buildings, but every day reach out in faith and hope offering genuine, integrity filled spiritual support in the wonderful and terrible of life’s experience. That has not changed over the last months, nor can I see it changing.
Within the hospital community we have got used to keeping one another safe by wearing masks. Looking forward we hope people will recognise the importance of protecting each other by the wearing of masks. It seems a small ask to protect us from seeing again some of the horrors of the past months.
Martin Abrams is Chaplaincy Manager and Freedom to Speak Up Guardian and Jan Fraser Hospital Chaplain, at Southport and Ormskirk Hospital NHS Trust.
Contact Martin at email@example.com or call 01704 704639.