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Chaplains tell of heartbreak in hospital ‘front line’

By Cian Molloy - 19 April, 2020

Hospital chaplains have provided an insight into some of the daily heartbreak caused by COVID-19 in a statement released by the Dublin Diocese, where Archbishop Diarmuid Martin pays tribute to all those working in his chaplaincy team.

Shauna Sweeney, a chaplain at Tallaght University Hospital, says it is heartbreaking to see the unthinkable ordeal of patients and their relatives. “Patients have not seen their family in weeks and feel isolated and lonely,” she said. “Families are at home, waiting to hear from the hospital, and feel helpless.

“As a chaplain in such an unusual time, it is my role to try and support patients and staff in the hospital and to make space for them to share their fears. It is extremely harrowing to see what patients and families are going through with this pandemic. Typically families would be with their loved ones morning, noon and night but that cannot be the case now.”

Telling the story of a dying young man who was leaving his young family behind, Shauna said: “His wife and brother came in to say their last goodbyes to him. I facilitated the visit with them, they had 15 minutes to see him and say goodbye as they would never see him again.

“They were surrounded by people with masks, goggles, hair nets, and no faces to see. This alone put so much fear with them and they too were instructed to wear the full PPE (personal protective equipment). It is utterly heart-breaking. The reality of the current situation feels inhumane and not what we as carers are used to.”

Another chaplain at Tallaght, Fr John Kelly, says that COVID-19 has challenged and changed the way in which pastoral care is provided. One innovation is that he uses Internet technology to help patients connect with members of their families. Often, relatives and the dying say their last goodbyes using a video-conferencing service, such as the Zoom mobile phone app.

At St Vincent’s Hospital, Elm Park, Fr Damien O’Reilly says working at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic is “one of the most challenging and amazing experiences” of his priestly life.

“To be working alongside health care professionals and all the staff of the hospital is truly a very humbling experience – one of care, kindness and compassion from all the staff and departments who are working very closely together to ensure that the best possible patient care of the highest standard is provided to each patient. Every patient is cared for with great dignity and loving care. The demands on the staff and on the hospital are way beyond what anyone of us could ever have imagined.”

Nevertheless, Fr O’Reilly believes that the safety of health workers, patients and relatives, is being given sufficient priority. He said “The hospital administration is doing everything possible to ensure the safety of all the patients, their families and staff, by making sure that all the resources that are required are made available.”

Fr O’Reilly has been trained in the use of PPE, so that he can attend to the sacramental needs of patients, when requested by the patient themselves or by a family member.

He says: “Like all who are working on the front line at this time the support and the prayers of the public is very much appreciated. As hospital chaplains, the support and prayers of the Archbishop the priest and religious and lay faithful of the Diocese is a great source of strength and for that support. I would simply say a very sincere ‘Thank you’. Please continue to pray for all of us and especially for the patients and their families and all staff at the front line.”

Describing the current situation as ‘difficult’ and one that is not likely to end for some time, Dr Martin said that when praying for health workers, we should remember that many have come here to work from abroad. He said: “We must reach out to them and their families at this time.”

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