By Stacy Sergent
Staff Chaplain
Medical University of South Carolina

We knew we would not be able to go in the room. The nurse explained it to the patient’s husband as I sat beside him in the waiting room, and he nodded his understanding about the risks and the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) limiting the number of staff who could come in and out of the patient’s room.

We went over the plan again. He and I would stand outside the door of the negative pressure ICU room where his wife lay hooked up to a ventilator, and we would be able to see her through the glass.

He would call their teenage children from the hospital’s iPad, and I would lead the family in prayer, asking God to give them strength and comfort, and to grant their loved one a peaceful transition to that place Jesus promised to prepare for her in his Father’s house. Then the nurse would suit up in full PPE in an antechamber next to the room, and take the iPad in so that the children could see their mother on screen and let her hear their voices (which we hoped she still could, though her body was rapidly failing).

The patient’s husband nodded again, staring at the floor, and the nurse gave me a look that was half gratitude for my presence and half painful acknowledgement that all we could do for this family was woefully inadequate.

The nurse might be able to hold the patient’s hand, through gloves, as she died, but the family could not. I waited outside the room with the husband, offering what comfort I could, and hearing him do his best to comfort his children through FaceTime.

I felt perhaps more helpless than I ever had in my twelve years as a staff chaplain at MUSC Medical Center. This was my first experience of a COVID-19 death. There would be others in the months that followed, and none of us knows what the months ahead will bring.

I don’t know what my job will look like tomorrow

Being a hospital chaplain in 2020 and now into 2021 has meant never knowing what the job will look like from one day to the next. There have been times when patients were not allowed any visitors at all. Other times they were allowed one, and currently each patient is allowed to name two people who will be the only designated visitors for the duration of their stay.

Decisions are being made day by day and hour by hour as the number of COVID-19 cases fluctuates, and that is anxiety-inducing for patients and families as well as for staff. It is more common than ever now for me to get calls from nurses asking for a chaplain to come visit a patient who is lonely.

If the patient has tested positive for the virus recently, I may have to make that visit over the phone or through a video call. (As our levels of PPE change, and as more of the staff is able to get vaccinated, I would not be surprised if more in-person visits become possible for us again.) Every hospital has different policies on who can enter the rooms of coronavirus patients, and I will respect ours, even when it is heartbreaking.

So much of what I offer as a chaplain is best communicated through my physical presence, perhaps my caring touch on the patient’s hand or head. Incarnational ministry, in the name of the Word who became flesh and made his dwelling among us, is something I find very difficult to do over the phone.

My prayer, sometimes through tears, has often been, “God, even though we can’t be in the same room, let them know they’re not alone. Please make your presence powerfully known.”

In the frustration and exhaustion that comes with trying to find new ways to care for others amidst constant changes, I am in good company. The doctors, nurses, medical techs, respiratory therapists, concierges, environmental services workers, and everyone else I work with is experiencing similar stress.

The other chaplains and I have been more intentional about checking in with staff, offering a listening ear for their concerns and a word of appreciation for all they are doing. I have made hundreds of small treat bags with notes of thanks and blessing, and distributed them to those working in different areas of our adult and children’s hospitals. It isn’t much, but even these small gestures mean a great deal to them.

Some of our staff have had coronavirus already, and may have had mild symptoms, been hospitalized with complications, or still be experiencing things like a loss of taste and smell months after the fact. Others are tired of the constant fear of carrying the virus home to their families, carefully leaving their shoes outside after every shift, undressing and showering before they get near anyone else in their house.

And while they are doing all this, they are also seeing pictures on social media of others having large gatherings of family and friends despite CDC recommendations, or driving to work past busy bars and restaurants where unmasked patrons seem to forget that we are living in a pandemic at all. It can be demoralizing.

We are seeing glimmers of hope

As 2020 ended, there were glimmers of hope on the horizon. In the first week after emergency approval of the Pfizer vaccine, about half of MUSC’s staff, including me and other chaplains, received our first shot, and then our second. Our hope is that wider distribution will allow our loved ones to be vaccinated soon.

These things will not happen as quickly as we want them to, and life may never fully return to a pre-COVID “normal.” There have been too many losses and divisions for that to happen.

But throughout the 2020 Christmas season, the words of a favorite song, “O Holy Night,” were echoing in my mind: “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” Walking the halls of the hospital, the weariness of our world is all too real, yet so is the thrill that hope brings. Whether I enter the room in a mask and full PPE, or can only be present through a video call, I want to testify to that hope in any way I can.

The Light of Christ can enter even this long and wearying darkness, and even in these halls where the shadow of death is ever present, we will see the breaking of that new and glorious morn.

Stacy Sergent is a CBF-endorsed chaplain who works all over the campus of the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, in both adult and children’s hospitals as needed.

She has been at MUSC since 2008, and throughout that time has been a member of Providence Church in Charleston.

She has been active with CBF since attending divinity school at Gardner-Webb University, where she earned a Master of Divinity degree in 2007.

The glorious morn

The Light of Christ can enter even this long and wearying darkness, and even in these halls where the shadow of death is ever present, we will see the breaking of that new and glorious morn.