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.