‘These patients are not alone’: Md. hospital chaplain calls pandemic ‘difficult time’

Stephanie Grant is the managing chaplain for Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center, in Rockville, Maryland, and the pandemic has meant that she and her staff are performing tasks they’ve never had to do before. (Courtesy Adventist HealthCare)

Stephanie Grant usually works a 12-hour day, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, she told WTOP, “I don’t think I have a schedule anymore. I’m either at work or I’m sleeping.”

Grant is the managing chaplain for Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center, in Rockville, Maryland, and the pandemic has meant that she and her staff are performing tasks they’ve never had to do before.

“It is a difficult time,” she said.

In addition to supporting patients, chaplains still sit in on every staff meeting, Adventist being a faith-based institution. And they have to do more with less: Grant and her staff normally rely on a group of volunteers, including clergy from the area; with the pandemic, volunteers have to stay at home.

“So we’ve had to step into that gap and provide support for a much sicker, [more] stressed, lonely and afraid population of patients and staff members,” Grant said. “There are a lot of new challenges.”

Grant and her team do virtual rounds. They use FaceTime when possible, “and now we have to do phone calls, cards, emails, texts, gifts; we’re feeding people …”

The nature of the virus means they need to conserve personal protective equipment, such as masks, gowns and gloves, whenever possible. That means a lot of time working with technology and helping patients and their families work with it too.

She recalled a recent case with a patient who had a tube in their throat and couldn’t speak. A member of their family wanted “desperately” to speak with them. “So I sat at the bedside and put my phone on speaker, and I allowed the family member to have a conversation of encouragement and love with this patient.”

Grant had to interpret the patient’s responses for the relative on the phone. “As the patient opened their eyes and began to cry in response to what the family member was saying, I felt like I was deeply connected to them both. And at the end of their visit together, I was able to convey to the family member how that patient responded, and then pray with them both.”

The patient is now doing “very well,” Grant said, but she added, “When I left that conversation, I left in tears.”

Not all patients end up doing that well. And when things look bad, Grant said, she and her staff are still there: “We attend every code, every crisis, every death.”

Each time a patient passes on, someone on the team attending to them, usually the chaplain, calls for what Grant called “the pause.”

“We ask for a moment of silence, and we reflect in some way upon the humanity that is the patient before us. Anybody can do it in the way that’s comfortable to them. But most of the time, I simply say something to the effect of, ‘This person was loved — was a brother, a father, a sister, a mother, a friend,’ and we pause to give thanks for the life and the connections and the love that’s represented. And then we also recognize the efforts of everyone standing in that space to save this life, and we honor their work as well.”

She said it’s a profound experience for her, but even more so for the medical staff.

“Because they have been doing doing doing, working working working, and they have a way of compartmentalizing their feelings so they can do the work that they’re called to do. The pause brings us all back into our own humanity. It makes us realize who we really are, how fragile life is, and how much we should honor it. And it gives people a pace to take a breath so that they can continue.”

‘We’re in this together’

With so many hours spent providing support for patients and staff, who supports the chaplains?

“What gets us through is that we all know that we’re in this together,” Grant said. “Knowing that we’re not alone gives us a great deal of strength.”

It’s also about focusing on their mission.

“We take our mission really seriously, to extend God’s care. To extend God’s care to our patients, we first extend it to each other.”

At the moment, no visitors are allowed in the hospital, but Grant said she recently had to correct someone who referred to patients as “dying alone.”

“Even though family members are not at the bedside, these patients are not alone,” Grant said. “We love them like their family members love them. We stand there; we talk to them; we sing to them; we pray with them; we play music for them. We do everything that we can do to stand in the gap so that they will know that they are loved.”

With all she’s seen, though, Grant is quick to say, “This presents absolutely no challenge to my faith. I guess I’m in the right job. My personal faith gives me everything I need to walk through this and not be afraid.”

She cited the 23rd Psalm (in part, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil”) and the 93rd Psalm (in part, “The Lord on high is mightier than the noise of many waters, yea, than the mighty waves of the sea”) and said that right now, the two verses “are where I’m living. And because of that, I can get up every day and do what I’m doing.”

‘The most diverse department’

That said, chaplaincy is a different calling from a ministry, Grant explained, stressing that “We are an interfaith chaplaincy.”

She adds, “I love to say this: We are probably the most diverse department in Adventist Health Care.”

“We’re not called to convert anybody,” she added. “We’re called to journey with them where they are.” If someone wants services specific to their religion, Grant said, “we have the bandwidth” to do that.

“But most of the time, we just come alongside people wherever they are and provide support for them, connecting them to their own spiritual resources for strength, wholeness and healing.”

More Coronavirus news

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

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Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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