Andrea Murdock, Rabbi Jonathan Rudnick and Sergio Moreno-Denton are chaplains in the Kansas City area. (Courtesy photos/Lilly Tighe with St. Luke's Health System) (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Chaplains support people in their toughest times. They have been pillars of spiritual care for patients and families separated during the pandemic, as well as for hospital staff. 

In Kansas, more than 4,900 people have died from COVID-19; in Missouri, more than 8,500 people have died. During the pandemic, visitations at hospitals have been limited to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The Beacon spoke to three chaplains in the Greater Kansas City Area representing different faiths to find out how spiritual care provided to patients changed with COVID-19. During the pandemic, chaplains have reexamined their connections to their patients, the staff they work with and the world outside the hospital.

“Everything is different in the last year,” said Sergio Moreno-Denton, a chaplain resident at St. Luke’s Health System. “From one day to the next, we had to decide how to provide meaningful care and support with all of this anxiety and uncertainty.”

‘I just need to try to be the least anxious presence in the room’

When Moreno-Denton visits a patient and leads them in prayer, they usually reach for his hand. 

But since the pandemic, he started a new way of praying that allows for social distancing.

“Putting a hand on my heart and saying, ‘This is where I hold you as I pray for you,’” said Moreno-Denton, who practices Buddhism.

Moreno-Denton says that while the spiritual and emotional care he provides to patients hasn’t changed, chaplains had to get creative to continue their work.

“We are being more attentive and intentional than ever, trying to create meaning out of the stress that we see,” Moreno-Denton said. “And it does take a toll.”

With visitor restrictions at hospitals, he has become more of a facilitator for communication between patients and their families — often holding a patient’s tablet or phone for them during video calls with families.

“I want to create a sense of being present with the family as much as possible,” Moreno-Denton said. “And make sure that families know their loved ones are not alone. That even though they can’t be there, there is someone that is constantly visiting.”

The pandemic has been stressful for chaplains as well as patients.

Moreno-Denton’s mala prayer beads. Courtesy photo from Sergio Moreno-Denton.

“We like to say that a chaplain should be the non-anxious presence in the room, when patients and families are dealing with difficult news,” he said. “Now, what I like to think is that I just need to try to be the least anxious presence in the room.”

Self-care has become more critical in order for Moreno-Denton to serve his patients. To cope with the emotions and stress of the pandemic, he makes sure to relax and live lightly.

“I am fortunate that I can go home after work and be with my partner and children every day,” Moreno-Denton said. “That has become more important to me now than ever before.”

As a clinical pastoral student for four years, Moreno-Denton said the pandemic changed the way he studies.

“I’m learning about how grief and uncertainty affect my learning. I’ve let go of perfectionism and come to the realization that done is better than perfect when it comes to homework and assignments.”

‘It doesn’t feel the same, and it doesn’t look the same. And yet, it still can work’

Unlike most chaplains, which work at one facility, Rabbi Jonathan Rudnick and his team of volunteers with the Jewish Family Services of Greater Kansas City provide spiritual care at different hospitals and elder care centers in the Kansas City area.

He used to go in person, now those visits have been restricted just to end-of-life care patients. 

In a time where everyone is more isolated, Rudnick says connections are now more important. But it also has become much harder to contact patients, communicate with them and leave a measurable impact.

Now he and his volunteers rely heavily on calls to hospital phones, which people aren’t used to answering. And some of the phones don’t work well. 

“It’s kind of antiquated,” Rudnick said.

Also, elder care facilities don’t have phones in rooms like hospitals do. Rudnick said spiritual care volunteers used to visit seven people a day in person; now they might reach one or two over the phone.

“In the time of the coronavirus, ‘OK’ is the new great. That kind of sentiment is true,” he said.

Being a chaplain is about the feeling of “withness” and the physical presence of sitting with someone at the bedside, Rudnick said.

A seder plate on a set seder table, ready to share the Passover virtually. Courtesy photo from Rabbi Jonathan Rudnick

“You’re trying to make this kosher connection,” Rudnick said. When patients see him knock on their hospital room door, wearing a name tag, he is able to connect with them more easily.

Communication over the phone with patients is more difficult. Rudnick compares interpersonal connection to an iceberg, with only the tip being vocal communication. Before he could use other senses to help perceive a patient’s needs. Now he can only listen.

“From the outset, you’re not fully present in the way that being there physically allows. The impact of a visit is directly related to the quality of connection,” he said.

Rudnick and volunteers have adjusted their expectations of what leaving a positive impact on a patient looks like.

“It doesn’t feel the same, and it doesn’t look the same. And yet, it still can work.”

‘All of these people impacted by COVID-19 became a light that lit our way’

Chaplaincy was a calling that Andrea Murdock, chaplain resident at St. Luke’s Health System, waited 20 years to pursue. But her education was interrupted when her internship was cut short at the beginning of the pandemic.  

When she started her residency five months later, everything was different. Murdock had to wear personal protective equipment, constantly wipe down surfaces, wipe down her shoes and wash her hands. Visitor restrictions were in place. 

The staff was also trying to navigate these changes while dealing with fears of getting COVID-19. So chaplains started to focus more on caring for the staff. 

Murdock focused more on conversations with staff members and performed small acts of kindness. She helped host an event that gave staff a chance to reflect on the people in their lives affected by COVID-19.

“We’ve tried to reach out and be a safe place for them, but they are carrying such a heavy load right now,” said Murdock, who is a member of the United Methodist Church. “All of the stresses the rest of society has, plus they come to work and are on the front lines.”

Murdock now spends more time checking in on staff before shifts and at the end of the day than she did before the pandemic. The Spiritual Wellness Department also goes out of its way to bring care to the staff in unique ways, like bringing a cart around with hot tea, snacks and a jar full of slips of paper with words of wisdom written on them.

The luminary walk hosted by the Spiritual Wellness Department at St. Luke’s Health System. Courtesy photo from St. Luke’s Health System

“It could be everything from theologians to song lyrics, things that might be one or two sentences that could give them something to ponder and reflect on,” she said.

The department also has an art cart that Murdock recently took to the oncology unit staff room, where she colored with the employees and listened to their stories.

Before the winter solstice, the Spiritual Wellness Department created a luminary walk in an inner courtyard. At the end of the walk, the staff could write the name of someone impacted by the pandemic on stars, which were hung on a blue wall.

“It invoked that all of these people impacted by COVID-19 became a light that lit our way,” Murdock said. “It just gave people a place of respite, leading up to that darkest night of the year.”

The event gave people a chance to acknowledge an extremely difficult year, Murdock said. With the COVID-19 vaccine rolling out, the hospital’s atmosphere feels different.

“It’s very much spring coming after winter. There is just a lightness and a trust in being there to do the work that was not there before the vaccine was available.”

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Brittany Callan covers health and environment at The Beacon, and is a Report for America corps member. Funding for this reporting was provided in part by the Health Forward Foundation.