Hospital chaplains embrace new role during the pandemic: caring for caregivers

Faith E. Pinho, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Religious News

The 28-year-old tries to channel the mantra of her grandfather, who served as a hospital chaplain before he died two years ago: "Be a caring presence." But to keep a distance from the life-and-death conditions she faces in the COVID-19 unit, Katz said she usually builds an emotional wall as she works.

Still, Katz often carries work home with her after long shifts, lying awake mulling over her patients and their families. A layer of guilt blankets her thoughts.

"We help the patients, but we leave at the end of the day. We're still breathing. How can we complain?" she said.

At both Cedars-Sinai and Children's Hospital Los Angeles, chaplains offer hospital workers a respite from the bustling, beeping backdrop. They roll up to cordoned-off areas in different wards with "Tea for the Soul."

Two by two, to accommodate social distancing, hospital staff trickle in, greeted by warm smiles and hot cups of tea. The chaplains may dim the lights or diffuse lavender-scented oils. Sometimes they set up a jar for workers to deposit their stressors, which are written on slips of paper.

"When we see that there's a lot of stress on the unit — maybe there has been a critical case, or a lot of them — sometimes we'll just bring up the tea cart," said Dagmar Grefe, manager of spiritual care at Children's Hospital. "It has become so popular that people will call us and say, 'We have a lot going on, can you come up?' It's an expression of care for people who usually always care for others."


Sue Martinez, a nurse manager at Children's Hospital, said the presence of the chaplains is "invaluable."

"Sometimes I'm not sure that we all recognize the magnitude that they have within the hospital walls," she said.

Martinez recalled learning on a recent evening about the death of a longtime colleague from the medical surgical unit, where Martinez has worked for 29 years. Grefe arrived the next day at 6 a.m. with the tea cart, she said, and later organized a virtual memorial for the late nurse.

"We could use it any day here, to be honest," Martinez said. "This work is hard, and oftentimes we don't take breaks — a real proper break where we could unplug.


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