A Chaplain Looks Back Over a Pandemic Year

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A Chaplain Looks Back Over a Pandemic Year

by Sister Susan Fortier, OSB, Chaplain at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center

To say this has been a painful and devastating year of loss and uncertainty is putting it mildly. The pandemic, that brought an abrupt end to life as we knew it, has been an overwhelming tragedy for everybody in our world and, most certainly, for those of us in health care. Almost every aspect of our lives has been affected with unimaginable change and loss, and with restrictions placed upon us.

I learned to live in the moment because the moment was all I had. I knew it could change at any time and usually did. Like our coworkers, we as chaplains had to learn how to adapt, change, and become flexible as procedures and policies were forever changing. Keeping up with daily emails became a challenge in itself, as did the use of technology. Like all employees, we chaplains no longer had the comfort of gathering in person for meetings; instead, we met virtually each day, to support one another and to discuss the best way we could care for our patients, families, and staff.

Our ministry definitely changed. Our halls and family waiting rooms, once bustling with visitors, became empty as visitor restrictions were put into place. The hospital felt more like a quiet retreat center than a busy hospital. Previous to the pandemic, a big part of my day was spent ministering to families. As the year progressed, I communicated with them by phone. Technology helped patients and families stay connected, to bridge the separation and isolation they felt.

My daily wardrobe changed as I wore a mask and goggles throughout each day. Gloves and full-body protection were required as I entered isolation rooms. Such clothing, along with physical distancing, felt like foreign barriers as I ministered to patients. I was grateful for each evening at home, where I could process and reflect upon what I had experienced throughout the day and renew my strength to meet the next.

I witnessed the anxiety, fear, loneliness, uncertainty, grief, and loss people were experiencing as I ministered to them on the Oncology and Medical Units. My nose and mouth were covered with a mask, but my ears were not. They took in the pain of humanity. What my eyes saw and ears heard during this pandemic will be, forever, imprinted on my heart. When patients were experiencing medical changes, potential loss, or a new diagnosis that could change their lives, emotions ran high. Being separated from their support systems of family and friends made their days even more difficult. It was heartbreaking for patients to be alone and heartbreaking for family and friends who could not be with them. As a chaplain, it was heartbreaking for me to witness the pain I saw each day.

In a year of being separated from those we love, we long for human connection. I remember one woman telling me, “Being in the hospital has been the best part of my year.” Surprised at this, I asked her how this could be. She said, “I get to see people like you and all those who come into my room each day. I’ve been reflecting on my life and have been telling stories and you listen. At home I am totally alone. It’s been so lonely.” Perhaps the greatest gift I could offer another during this year was this gift of listening. I was surprised at how many people thanked me for simply listening to them.

Listening and human touch can be comforting and healing, but Covid robbed us of the opportunity of embracing those we love. I heard over and over again, “I can hardly wait to hug my children and my grandchildren.” Being Irish, hugging is in my very nature. It was difficult not to be able to extend a hand or a hug to another who was suffering. I recall an elderly woman who extended her hand when I introduced myself and said, “Sit down and stay with me. Talk with me! I’m lonely.” My heart was moved and at that moment caution was not important. I took her hand and held it as she wept.

I have been with many people who died during the pandemic. It is usually a sacred time when family and friends gather around their loved one, to say ‘Goodbye, thank you and I love you;’ a time of sharing tears, memories, laughter, and hugs. The pandemic robbed many of this treasured time together, for even at the time of death, visitors were limited. I, too, have suffered the loss of several friends during the past year and feel the grief of having never had the opportunity to be present with them, to say goodbye, to thank them, or to attend their funerals. Likewise, I experience the grief of missing coworkers who left unnoticed or who retired without any goodbyes or celebration. The aftermath of the pandemic will surely leave a mark on all of us as we reenter life feeling the absence of those we have loved and lost.

Devastating as this year has been, it was inspiring to see coworkers respond to the needs and demands placed upon them. I think we all found strength in one another. As I ministered to staff, they ministered to me. We were all in this, together, feeling vulnerable, fearful, and uncertain about what Covid would bring our way. Some of our staff moved in and out of quarantine as they were exposed to Covid or contracted it themselves. We were fatigued and under extreme stress as we navigated the rapid pace of change within us and around us. Hospital floors were reconfigured to make room for the care of Covid patients. Our Oncology staff and patients moved from St. Mary’s Hospital to Miller Dwan Medical Center. It was another change, another adjustment to a new environment with all that such a move entailed.

Through it all I witnessed the resiliency of the human spirit and the loving care of community through incredible acts of kindness, generosity, and compassion from our nurses, physicians, social workers, those who worked in food service and environmental service, therapists, pharmacists, and the entire staff. It was a gift to work with all of them and I was inspired with the daily dedication and commitment I saw in them.

Yes, it has been an emotionally exhausting year of devastating loss but also a year of grace. My priorities have shifted in realizing, more deeply, that life is not a marathon to be completed but a limited gift of time, to be lived well and to be spent on others. I have become more conscious of slowing down and stepping out of the “rat race” by becoming more present to the moment and mindful of the way I choose and want to live. I am ever more grateful for the simple joys of life and the treasured relationships that are mine.

Through the generosity and kindness that I experienced from so many, I know that what we do or don’t do for others does make a difference. The pandemic has taught me that I, with the rest of humanity, am fragile and vulnerable, yet strong and resilient. Hopefully, I and all of us will not forget the lessons learned in a year that has had the potential of transforming our lives, our country, and our world.

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  1. Thank you, Sue, for these observations and comments. How fortunate these people have been to receive your ministry through these months…yes, our lives are so full of unpredictable and changing opportunities to do God’s work! I must say, my work at church through these same times have been similar and intense–from a greater distance than your hospital encounters–mine were limited to phone and video connections. I certainly wish you well and know your hospital Chaplaincy work continues its transitioning back to more familiar encounters. God’s blessings…

  2. Hi Sue – I happened to see an article about you in the St. Scholastica Magazine. It gave me a rush of memories from 2005-2006 when my husband Henry suffered a traumatic brain injury – he was in St Mary’s and Miller Dwan for close to a year while I lived at the Holiday Inn downtown. We were from Hibbing. You were a huge blessing to me and I appreciate our talks we had. I would love to keep in touch if you have time. Thank you so much!


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