I’m a hospital chaplain. People ask me all the time: What’s it like in there? Here’s my answer.

Each morning, as I walk through the doors 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.  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 or even tears. But sometimes, there’s a smile.    

When a code blares out overhead to the COVID-19 units, we answer the call at a run. The nurse, respiratory therapist and physician dressed in full personal protective equipment (PPE) enter the room.  While I don’t go into COVID-19 patient rooms, I am there to support the team and am on full stand-by to provide families with updates.

You can feel the anxiety – and the adrenaline. The team’s focus is fully on the patient’s needs, even as they put themselves at risk. 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. All of us. We’re risking the possibility of infection and taking the virus home to the people we love: our spouses, partners, children and, in some instances, our own elderly parents. 

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. But I am now, and it’s 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 6 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 COVID-19 patients, 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. If you know patients in the hospital, nursing home or someone isolated at home, give them a call of encouragement and offer a prayer. They need to know that they matter. That 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 who 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.

What’s it like in there? Hope is spoken and unspoken, but it is always present in some way. We are here to bring healing and hope to our patients, our families and our communities.

You’ve asked how you, can help. Here is my answer: Wash your hands often, keep your social distance and, please, remember the people on our team.

James Cook is a chaplain at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center in Salisbury, North Carolina.

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.