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James Cook: We are in this together

Novant Health Chaplain James Cook

By James Cook
For the Salisbury Post

News reports about hospitals and healthcare workers are seen daily in the media. People are concerned about the effects of this virus and the impact on those working on the front lines. What’s it like in there? How is your healthcare team doing? How are your team members holding up? How are you doing and feeling? Are you afraid? How many COVID-19 patients do you have now? Have any team members tested positive with the coronavirus by caring for COVID-19 patients? How bad do you think it will get? Are you prepared? Does the hospital have all the resources needed to care for these particular patients as well as all the other patients? How long is it taking to get test results? What is the hospital census like? How can we, the community, help you and your team?

These are typical questions I get from family, friends and others. I get phone calls, “I am praying for you and your teammates.” In my 29 years as a chaplain, 25 years at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center, this is a new, scary experience for me and my teammates. Each morning, as I enter the same entrance with the rest of the team, someone is there to check name badges and temperatures, making certain that we are authorized and safe to enter the medical center, not only safe for our own personal health, but also safe for all we will encounter as we go about our duties. Because everyone is wearing a mask, we can only see each other’s eyes as we walk the halls. Everyone is hyper-focused, listening intently as we look into those eyes. The eyes are all we have to perceive feelings, but they tell us a lot. Sometimes I see fear, anxiety and concern.  But, sometimes, I see a smile or even tears.

We often hear, “We are in this together.” This is so true. In the midst of fluid changes, to protocols, the development of new protocols, and even physical modifications to the building and units, just to name a few, the hospital and its team are truly in this together.

When a code or rapid response code is called overhead to the COVID-19 units, we run towards the room together, a team. The nurse, respiratory therapist, and physician dressed in full personal protective equipment (PPE) enter the room. Anxiety and adrenaline are high. You can feel it. The team’s razor focus is fully on the patient’s needs in the midst of putting themselves at risk. Any team member will tell you — it has always been about the patient, but today, in this environment, it’s also about you and person next to you, and the patient down the hall. This is where the “we are in this together” comes into the care we are providing. It is all of us. We realize that we are on the frontline, risking the possibility of infection and risking taking the virus home to the people we love and want to protect like our spouses, children and, in some instances, our own elderly parents.

Upon arriving at home, our shoes stay in the garage, our clothes go straight into the washer and we immediately take a shower — our “new normal.” I know team members who intentionally keep a physical distance from their own family members hoping to protect them. That is a hard thing to do when loved ones want to share a hug and offer encouragement and comfort.

As the hospital chaplain, I have rarely been restricted from visiting patients, being near team members, or entering certain areas of the hospital. This is our present reality. I am spending much more time supporting team members in prayer via phone, at a distance, email or text. “It’s not supposed to be like this.” Before COVID-19, I often heard these words from family members and patients in the midst of their illness and recovery. Today is different; I hear it from my teammates.

Every day, when I visit with patients hospitalized for reasons other than COVID-19 and offer prayer, the patient will often reach out a hand for mine, and regretfully I have to respond, “I am sorry. For both our safety we can’t hold hands. God is holding both of us in his hands.” It makes what I do difficult standing six feet away from the patient I long to comfort. We all know how important physical touch can be in the healing process; just having someone close when we are afraid is comforting and reassuring. No one wants to be alone, isolated, or feel untouchable.

We make every effort to connect with all our patients even when there are barriers, but caring for the COVID-19 patient population, or those awaiting test results, is especially challenging. We must be more creative. The patient advocates, nurses and chaplains make phone calls or use Facetime to speak with patients to assess how they are doing and offer words of encouragement and prayer. Often they don’t feel like talking, which makes it difficult to fully understand how they are doing emotionally and spiritually. We ask if family, friends, or pastor have called to check on them. It is important that we continue to check on them. So, if you know patients in the hospital, nursing home, or someone isolated at home, please give them a call of encouragement and offer a prayer. They need to know that they matter and we care.

There are many new opportunities of ministry and care for our team members as well as patients. I have gathered with various departments and leaders and we pray together. We find ways of laughing and sharing together, to disrupt the stress and anxiety. We come together to post selfies on Facebook or social media, in our masks, to show our unity and devotion to our calling. I have built new relationships with team members that I don’t typically work with on a daily basis. We have been brought together in the muck and mire to serve and bring healing. I feel greater appreciation for the tremendous courage of nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, leaders and support services team members, to name a few, who put themselves at risk every day. Title or position does not matter, all are team members. What matters is taking the time to be an empathic listener, friend, and a team mate for a brief moment in our hectic days.

Hope is spoken and unspoken, but it is always present in some way in this environment. In difficult times, it is vital to have something to hold on to. As chaplain, I believe God is the foundation of hope through prayer to help us cope in these uncertain times. Without hope we are not likely to act on our own behalf or on the behalf of others. We need hope as desperately as we need air, food, clothing and shelter.

We are here to bring healing and hope to our patients, our families, and our communities.

“We are in this together.” And we will get through this together. So, while we don’t have answers to all the questions, you’ve asked how you, can help … wash your hands often, keep your social distance and, please, remember us in your thoughts and prayers!

James Cook is chaplain at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center.

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