LOS ANGELES – Before entering the room of a COVID-19 patient, the Rev. Peggy Kelley dons personal protective gear — both physical and spiritual.
She pulls on a sterile gown and places a face shield over her mask. She pumps Purell into her gloved hands and holds them over her chest, checking in with her heart. With a few deep breaths, the hospital chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center sends some words heavenward:
"God, be with me. Walk with me in this room, use me, help me serve your people. Guide me. Guide my work, my hands, my eyes."
Then she walks into the quarantine zone, hoping to provide some solace or sense of self to the suffering stranger in bed.
On a recent visit, Kelley met with a despondent patient who greeted her as she entered his room. He hadn't spoken much to his nurse, Jillian Katz, other than to ask for a priest. Though she isn't Catholic, Kelley offered to pray with the man, calling on God's strength. The moment left the Catholic patient, Jewish nurse and Protestant chaplain all in tears.
"She was saying things that applied to me," Katz said. "I was sad for him, but I was also like, 'Please give me strength; I need all the help I can get.' I was like, 'Wow, I actually felt God — that was crazy!' "
Although hospital chaplains are primarily tasked with supporting the sick and their loved ones, the pandemic has thrust them into new territory: caring for the caregivers.
Kelley, a minister in the Congregational Church, said she is devoting more time than ever in her 15 years as a chaplain to serving burned-out healthcare workers. The holiday surge in coronavirus cases — and the ensuing record-high hospitalizations and deaths — especially weakened morale, she said.
"They're working so hard, and they're not forgetting what we need to do to get through this. And then when they see people not complying … they get so, 'Oh come on, you guys, we can't step away from this reality,'" Kelley said. "It's very disheartening."
For Katz and other medical staff, each day is a balancing act in clinical practice and empathy.