Hospital Chaplaincy During COVID-19

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by Rev. Susan Halvor

In the years I spent as a Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) chaplain, I was struck by how when I looked at NICU parents, I saw amazing individuals who were learning and doing things they never could have imagined – changing the diaper of a baby that weighs less than 2 pounds. Navigating complicated medical terminology. Learning the subtle cues of a micropreemie. Spending hours at a hospital bedside, and still somehow managing to accomplish other daily life tasks – bills, parenting other children, household responsibilities, jobs. They are my heroes. And yet often all they saw in themselves was a terrified new parent, unable to fully protect the little one under their care from the dangers of life outside the womb.

I’ve been thinking about those NICU parents as I’ve tried to navigate what it means to be a leader – specifically, the manager of a hospital spiritual care department – in a pandemic. In the early days of March, I simply felt overwhelmed. I was trying to make sure my chaplains were safe and were able to provide desperately needed care, while also trying to support other leaders and hospital caregivers, manage the intense flow of rapidly changing information, and, because life is what it is, watching my beloved elderly dog Jack let me know that he was nearing the end of his days. The weight of my decisions was heavy. The world felt dangerous and unpredictable.

Now, today, there are still plenty of overwhelming moments. But I hope I’m remembering what I learned about those NICU parents. That the small steps I take make a difference. Advocating for reflections at the beginning of every hospital meeting, because people are hungry for meaning-making, and to be reminded that they aren’t alone in feeling scared or overwhelmed. The lessons I learned coming out as a queer leader in the church still hold true – that my vulnerability is a strength, not a weakness. That my loving is the heart of what keeps me connected to others, and those connections that bond us will help sustain us. That I am not alone, in so, so many ways, and neither are you. Endless virtual meetings have never been what bring me joy, but holding space in a virtual debrief for suffering nurses or in a check-in for our peer support team reminds me that even if we’re not “in person,” we can still connect and be recognized and loved. When I can be gentle with my own vulnerable moments, it makes it easier for my chaplains and other colleagues to be open about their own tender places.

And there are sacred moments all over – taking a break to laugh and play ping pong with my team, listening to an overwhelmed parent, and taking the space for my own heart – stillness, writing, walking, connecting with my partner. The more I am connected to those sacred moments, the more able I am to lead from my heart. And then I can see myself beyond the overwhelmed and scared individual with little control – I can see the woman who is vulnerable and loves and grieves and needs rest, and laughs and leads, connecting others and holding space for hope and healing to grow.

 

Rev. Susan Halvor (she/her/hers) has lived in Anchorage, Alaska for 20 years, after being raised in the Pacific Northwest. She will celebrate the 20th anniversary of her ordination to Word and Sacrament ministry in August. Her heart is most alive in the holy moments of hospital chaplaincy. She currently manages the spiritual care department at Providence Alaska Medical Center, and spent 11 years as the Children’s Hospital Chaplain. She and her partner Holly look forward to the days they can travel again, and in the meantime, are grateful to live in a place where they can look forward to hiking, fishing and backpacking this summer.

15 Replies to “Hospital Chaplaincy During COVID-19”

  1. You continue to lead and inspire us all, Susan. Thank you for the gentle reminders to hold space in those sacred times of sharing and reflection. As my students grieve and work through challenges, I am holding on to that lamp that casts light even in the darkest of spaces. Thank you for leading your team on the front lines. You do extraordinary work. I’ll never forget your kindness. Love and hugs to you and Holly.

  2. Susan wonderful words thank you for this letter. Thank you for addressing this issue .

    1. 20 years! Has it been so long? And yet so quick. Sending love and thanks your way, sister. You make us all blessed to know you. The memories have not faded. Thank you for the work you do and the hearts you touch, especially in this time of isolation.

      1. Thank you, Mike! I know, right? How on earth has it been 20 years!?!?!? Lots of love to you, my friend!

  3. Inspiring words of hope and relief from the weight of this new world we live in. Thank you – Kris

  4. Thank you for your beautiful, wise words Susan. Much love to you and Holly my friend!

  5. Wow oh wow! 20 years just flew by that fast! Hello Susan, finally able to sit because of the lockdown and read some of the messages on Linkln. Nice surprise to read about your work up in Alaska. Would love to hear from you and Holly and Mike Strickland Hi! Great to know you are still out there. Hope we can outlast this pandemic so take care and save lives! Susan hit me on Messenger please!

  6. Beautiful words Susan. You are such a meaningful asset to our hospital. Having been a NICU mother 29 years ago, I get what you are speaking to. I was the first parent to do skin to skin but only through the guidance of a spiritual nurse/social services person at the time. She was the spiritual care staff. She gave me strength and encouragement and many words of wisdom. I know you have done the same for many parents and staff. I was always so grateful to have you on call to the ED and the same in ASU. Thank you for your spiritual guidance all these years. Hugs and love.

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