A few days ago Sheree Jones said a prayer outside of the COVID-19 unit at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center.
For safety reasons, she and her fellow hospital chaplains are no longer allowed to enter the unit, so they did the next best thing by placing their gloved hands on the door and quietly praying for divine intervention.
Like other front-line health care workers, chaplains are busy answering the call to help in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. And it is their calming presence that is appreciated now more than ever.
An act of faith
Jones grew up not far from Winston-Salem in the small mountain town of West Jefferson, North Carolina. It was there that she felt a calling on her life to serve others by going into the ministry.
“God put a love for people on my heart,” she said. “And I knew that I wanted to do something that would make a difference.”
Jones went on to complete her bachelor’s degree at Mars Hill University and her master’s degree in divinity at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She worked in several churches around the Triad before taking a job in 2000 as an associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Aiken, South Carolina.
‘Hope never dies’
Like everyone who is old enough to remember where they were on Sept. 11, 2001, Jones can recall being at the church when the Twin Towers collapsed. At that time, she worked to pull the community together, and that’s exactly what her team is trying to do today. She joined the spiritual care team at Forsyth Medical Center in 2011.
“In both instances we have all been shaken out of our normal routines,” she said. “And people are scared and searching for answers.”
Just last week while conducting ‘an on the other side of the door’ phone visit with a COVID-19 patient, the patient asked Jones if she thought mankind could learn anything from this pandemic.
“As chaplains we have been getting a lot more of these introspective questions lately,” Jones said. “But this one has stuck with me. I think we all share a new sense of vulnerability these days. But I try to help patients remember that there is always a reason to hope. Even at the end of life, hope never dies.”
Always on duty
Chaplains are different from other faith leaders because they don’t approach patients with a religious agenda, said Randy Hillman, chaplaincy manager at Forsyth. “The whole idea is to be with patients where they are,” he said. “And to provide comfort by way of their own belief or faith traditions.”
During normal circumstances, his team of six chaplains has the support of more than 50 community volunteer chaplains to round on patients and share on-call responsibilities. But the volunteer help ended about a month ago when COVID-19 forced new visitor restrictions to be implemented.
Now, Hillman’s core team of four full-time and two part-time chaplains carries the load by dividing up units at the hospital and sharing evening and weekend on-call duty.
“I feel like we’re always on,” said Jones. “And we’re having to think of new and creative ways to take care of our patients, their families and our team members.”
Jones typically sees between 10 and 15 patients a day and tries to also provide comfort for their families. Today, many of these encounters have shifted to phone or video appointments.
“Our main goal is to be that non-anxious presence for our patients,” she said. “But I have to admit that wearing a mask and not being able to actually touch and hug my patients during this time has made that a challenge.”
One of the ways the spiritual care team is helping health care workers across the system is by hosting virtual Code Lavender meetings. In 2009, the Cleveland Clinic developed the Code Lavender initiative to provide holistic support for health care workers during emotionally stressful events.
More than 60 team members tuned in for last week’s Code Lavender virtual conference call. Rebekah Ramsey, chaplaincy manager at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center, led the group through a breathing exercise and then shared a personal story about her 2-year-old son.
“I recently took my son on a walk around our neighborhood,” she said. “While walking he noticed a robin in someone’s yard, but the bird flew away. I’ll never forget that he turned and looked at me and asked with genuine concern in his voice, where the robin went. I think a lot of us are feeling that same way today. In the midst of everything going on, we still see the beauty of spring all around us, but we want to know that everyone, including the robins, will be OK.”
Her story inspired other team members to share their own experiences. And so it became a safe place for 30 minutes on a Thursday morning to unload burdens and grieve together.
The hardest part
Jones says the hardest part of her job is not taking it home with her. She changes clothes and cleans her shoes in the garage before entering her house. But she says the day melts away when she is greeted on the other side of the door by her dog, Zoe.
“Zoe means ‘life’ in Greek,” she said. “And she is a burst of life for me when I get home.”
Jones also finds solace by relying on her fellow chaplains and her own church family. And like her experience after 9/11, she believes that we will all come out on the other side of this stronger than we were before.
“I think it is important for us to remember that we don’t walk ahead of our patients, we walk with them,” she said. “And I’m grateful for each day that we have an opportunity to touch a life.”
Novant Health team members are on the front lines in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. Novant Health Foundation has established a new fund dedicated to supporting our teams, as well as the overall response to the pandemic. Contributions will support team members and help fund testing and medication to support patient care, as well as medical supplies. To donate, click here.
North Carolina residents who are in emotional distress – or would like guidance on helping someone they know who is struggling – can call a free 24-hour helpline at 800-718-3550 to speak with a counselor. The service, provided by Novant Health, connects callers with a master’s level therapist who can offer immediate guidance and help determine possible next steps, which could include a further assessment or connection to community resources for those in need.