Hospital chaplains bridge gap between faith and fear amid the pandemic

2020: A year unlike any other for chaplains
Posted at 6:16 PM, Jan 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-29 18:16:36-05

"We knew things were going to change, but we didn't quite know what it would look like," said Reverend Jenny Sumner Carswell.

In her 11th year as one of the chaplains at Tampa General Hospital, she admits when COVID-19 first came through the doors, she had no idea what she was about to encounter. It would end up being the hardest year of most hospital chaplains' careers.

"Last year, around March or April, we sat down as a spiritual health team together and wondered how we were going to do this," said Carswell.

No longer could they just answer a patient's request for spiritual guidance. They now had to potentially expose themselves to the deadly virus, which at the time, little was still known about.

Although the chaplains would suit up in the same PPE gear as doctors and nurses, the fear of the unknown was ever-present. As the days turned into weeks, more and more infectious patients passed through the doors, and the workload of chaplains all across the Tampa Bay area increased. The tricky part was how to bridge the gap between faith and fear of the patients who knew they would never leave the hospital or see their family again.

"Patients just need to know they're not alone and it's normal because they're not only in a pandemic, they're in the hospital for some really scary stuff," Carswell said. "For other patients, it was instilling hope and determination that they were going to pull through this."

Hospital chaplains are not there to push faith on patients. They are the caretakers of a patient's spiritual well-being. And they are well trained to meet the needs of all faiths, including atheists.

Father JoJo Dyachim arrived at St Joseph's Hospital North in Lutz just a few months before the pandemic. He said what he sees now is more patients diving deeper into their faith.

"I see a hunger for meaning, for purpose. Trying to find hope," said Dyachim.

His job often meant bedside Facetime calls and Zoom meetings with a patient's family outside the hospital who could only reach out and touch their loved ones through technology. He said the hardest part was the times when those calls were a final goodbye since visitors were not allowed. His hand holding a patient's was the last touch they would ever feel.

The same held true for Reverend Jenny. Those were the tough days. But there were also the patients who gave her hope that death loses its sting in faith.

"I had one man, a nurse, and I turned his bed to face the window and I turned on gospel music and he raised his hands and said, 'my final view,' and it was beautiful," Carswell said with a smile and watering eyes.

There have also been personal breaking points for both Carswell and Dyachim — moments that tested all facets of their stamina. Carswell said that is when she leans into family, her colleagues and the Psalms in her Bible.

"For me sometimes it's going to my faith. It's also the reminder that we have psychologists here who have free, confidential sessions with us at the hospital," said Carswell.

To the rest of us who are growing weary of protective masks, social distancing and time away from family, Father JoJo offers this:

"The Psalms says 'at night there are tears, but joy comes in the morning,' and I believe that there is a new dawn coming, a new horizon, and its up to us to step up into that in faith."