Exhausted hospital chaplains bring solace to lonely, dying

APTOPIX_Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_26443 Chaplain Kristin Michealsen holds the hand of a deceased COVID-19 patient while talking on the phone with the patient's family member at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. "I have never seen this much of death and suffering," said Michealsen, who has been a chaplain for 13 years. "I often tell families that I'm holding their loved one's hand when they can't and that I am with them when they are dying when they can't be."
APTOPIX_Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_76940 Chaplain Kevin Deegan, left, and registered nurse Michelle Stephens comfort each other in a COVID-19 unit at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. "He is my friend. He is a trusted co-worker. He is my partner in crime. We absolutely have been through a lot together," said the nurse.
APTOPIX_Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_49046 Transporters Miguel Lopez, right, Noe Meza move a body of a COVID-19 patient to a morgue at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles, Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021.
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_26443 Chaplain Kristin Michealsen holds the hand of a deceased COVID-19 patient while talking on the phone with the patient's family member at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. "I have never seen this much of death and suffering," said Michealsen, who has been a chaplain for 13 years. "I often tell families that I'm holding their loved one's hand when they can't and that I am with them when they are dying when they can't be."
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_91162 Sonya Rodriguez wipes her tears after seeing her father via video chat arranged by chaplain Kevin Deegan in a COVID-19 unit at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021.
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_91829 Chaplain Elias Mena, left, prays for a COVID-19 patient placed on comfort care as registered nurse Nikki De La Cruz, foreground, monitors the patient at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. As families are barred from visiting loved ones to curb the disease's spread, chaplains often are there to act as surrogates, holding the hands of the dying, praying with them and carrying iPads into hospital rooms to provide a real-time connection with grieving families.
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_83216 Chaplain Nancy Many visits a chapel after offering communion to a COVID-19 patient at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. As families are barred from visiting loved ones to curb the disease's spread, chaplains often are there to act as surrogates, holding the hands of the dying, praying with them and carrying iPads into hospital rooms to provide a real-time connection with grieving families.
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_09428 Chaplain Kevin Deegan places his hand on the head of a COVID-19 patient while praying for him at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. Deegan's job, and that of his fellow chaplains at the 377-bed medical center, is to minister to every one of them and also their loved ones. So each day for the past 11 months he has been entering the rooms of the sick and dying clad in a face mask, face shield, gloves and full body cover to pray with them, hold their hands, gently brush their foreheads and reassure them there is nothing to fear.
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_32261 A hospital worker places a "COVID Patient" sticker on a body bag holding a deceased COVID-19 patient at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021.
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_53816 A "COVID Patient" sticker is placed on a bag containing some belongings of a deceased COVID-19 patient at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021.
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_35890 Chaplain Kristin Michealsen holds the hand of a deceased COVID-19 patient while talking on the phone with the patient's family member at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. "I have never seen this much of death and suffering," said Michealsen, who has been a chaplain for 13 years. "I often tell families that I'm holding their loved one's hand when they can't and that I am with them when they are dying when they can't be."
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_07726 Chaplain Kristin Michealsen leaves a COVID-19 unit after talking to a family member of a deceased patient as transporters Noe Meza, left, and Miguel Lopez wheel a gurney carrying a body of a COVID-19 victim at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021.
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_93701 A patient holds an Our Lady of Guadalupe card in his bed while talking to chaplain Nancy Many at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. As families are barred from visiting loved ones to curb the disease's spread, chaplains often are there to act as surrogates, holding the hands of the dying, praying with them and carrying iPads into hospital rooms to provide a real-time connection with grieving families.
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_76940 Chaplain Kevin Deegan, left, and registered nurse Michelle Stephens comfort each other in a COVID-19 unit at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. "He is my friend. He is a trusted co-worker. He is my partner in crime. We absolutely have been through a lot together," said the nurse.
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_82482 With her hands on the chest, registered nurse Bilma Pellissery, left, prays with chaplain Nancy Many after receiving communion in the hallway of a COVID-19 unit at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. "I prayed for all the patients and for my own sanctity," said the nurse.
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_45534 Chaplain Elias Mena prays with COVID-19 patient Zoraida Escorba at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021.
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_12378 Chaplain Nancy Many holds a pyx containing hosts while waiting in a COVID19-unit to offer communion to a patient at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021.
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_83815 Chaplain Elias Mena holds the hand of a COVID-19 patient while praying for him at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. As families are barred from visiting loved ones to curb the disease's spread, chaplains often are there to act as surrogates, holding the hands of the dying, praying with them and carrying iPads into hospital rooms to provide a real-time connection with grieving families.
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_82420 Chaplain Anne Dauchy holds the hand of a dying COVID-19 patient after the sacrament of anointing of the sick administered over the phone by a priest of at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021.
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_43154 Sharie Duran blows a kiss to her mother, a COVID-19 patient, while on a video chat arranged by chaplain Kevin Deegan at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. "We need new words to describe where we are at now," said Deegan. "This whole month has just been so far beyond anything I had expected."
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_80198 Chaplain Kevin Deegan talks on the phone with a COVID-19 patient's family member to arrange a video call at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. Deegan's job, and that of his fellow chaplains at the 377-bed medical center, is to minister to every one of them and also their loved ones. So each day for the past 11 months he has been entering the rooms of the sick and dying clad in a face mask, face shield, gloves and full body cover to pray with them, hold their hands, gently brush their foreheads and reassure them there is nothing to fear.
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_92377 A body of a COVID-19 patient lies in a bed at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. The patient died shortly after receiving the sacrament of anointing of the sick administered over the phone by a priest.
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_45882 Chaplain Kevin Deegan walks past a crucifix in a COVID-19 unit at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. Deegan's job, and that of his fellow chaplains at the 377-bed medical center, is to minister to every one of them and also their loved ones. So each day for the past 11 months he has been entering the rooms of the sick and dying clad in a face mask, face shield, gloves and full body cover to pray with them, hold their hands, gently brush their foreheads and reassure them there is nothing to fear.
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_66135 Transporters Miguel Lopez, right, Noe Meza prepare to move a body of a COVID-19 victim to a morgue at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021.
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_49046 Transporters Miguel Lopez, right, Noe Meza move a body of a COVID-19 patient to a morgue at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021.
Virus_Outbreak_Hospital_Chaplains_24633 Maintenance technician Richard Martinez prays in an empty chapel at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in the Mission Hills section of Los Angeles Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021. Martinez said he prayed for all the patients and for the hospital to continue to have its doors open to allow as many patients as possible.
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Inside hospital rooms across America, where the sick are alone without family to comfort them, the grim task of offering solace falls to overworked and emotionally drained hospital chaplains who are dealing with more death than they’ve ever seen.

Last week nearly a dozen died on a single day at the 377-bed Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, a gleaming, modern medical facility that is tucked into the northwest corner of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. Three more passed — within a span of 45 minutes — the next day.

As he has each day for the past 11 months, Chaplain Kevin Deegan sits with the sick and dying, clad in a facemask, face shield, gloves and full body cover. He prays with them, holds their hands, gently brushes their foreheads and reassures them there is nothing to fear.

Grieving families, unable to enter the hospital because of the deadly virus, watch through the iPad he’s carried into the room with him.

“All right, Miss Leticia, it’s Chaplain Kevin. We’re going to say some prayers now. Ok, my dear?”

“She can hear you,” he tells her son, Jayson Lim, urging him to talk to her.

“Yo, Ma,” Lim manages to say before breaking down in tears and burying his head in his hands. Later he’ll pray with her.

Deegan, who ministered to people undergoing hospice and palliative care before joining Holy Cross two years ago, is no stranger to death. But still, he says, he and his fellow chaplains had seen nothing like this before COVID-19 struck last year and began to kill people by the hundreds of thousands. Close to 400,000 people have died in the U.S. alone.

Holy Cross is filled with so many COVID-19 patients that it has had to double up some people in intensive care rooms and put others in areas normally reserved for outpatient care and patient recovery. A makeshift area at the end of a hallway has even been turned into a hospital room.

Deegan and about a dozen other chaplains cover shifts that extend to 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

As Chaplain Anne Dauchy prays for a woman during her last moments, the patient’s loved ones watching through Dauchy’s iPad can be heard sobbing in the background and saying words like, “I love you so much, Mamma” and “Thank you for everything.'”

“We try to kind of reframe what a miracle is,” an exhausted Dauchy says afterward. “Sometimes it’s living another day, sometimes it’s a patient opening their eyes.

“Perhaps that’s the miracle, that she’s at rest and at peace and not suffering anymore,” she says of the woman who died.

When asked how he, Dauchy and the others manage to survive the turmoil emotionally, Deegan replies, “That’s a good question. I have to be honest. I don’t know.”

What he does know is when he saw doctors, nurses and other hospital staff risking their own lives to do everything they could to save others he felt he had to be there, right in the room with them, to offer comfort and be a surrogate for their loved ones who couldn’t be there.

He was sure he’d eventually be infected as COVID-19 patients began pouring into the hospital every day. So far he has not, and just last week he had his second dose of the vaccine.

“Who knew PPE really works,” he said with a chuckle during a rare lighthearted moment as he discussed the personal protective equipment he dons each day before work.

On that Monday when 11 people died, including three he personally ministered to, Deegan went home and, after he tried to fall asleep, saw the faces and again heard the voices of the people who had sobbed and screamed at him, “Why? Why? Why?”

Some families lash out at the chaplains, looking for someone to blame, said Monica Pantoja, a clerk at the hospital’s intensive care unit who has been isolating at home after becoming infected herself.

“They take a lot of heat and people don’t understand that they’re doing the best they can. I think their prayers mean more than anything to families,” Pantoja said, speaking from first-hand experience.

When her 72-year-old mother was hospitalized for three months with COVID-19, including several weeks on a ventilator, a chaplain called every day to put her on the iPad with her. Her mother is now recovering at a rehabilitation center.

There are other occasional victories as well.

As Deegan prayed with another patient last week he encouraged her loved ones to talk to her through the iPad, and when one shouted, “Hi Mom,” the woman, on oxygen, opened her eyes wider, raised her head slightly and tried to reply, although the words wouldn’t come. “Who is that?”, Deegan asked her. “Is that Marvin?” She nodded.

Later, when he stepped out of the hospital, he found Leticia Lim’s son Jayson waiting by the door to thank him as his mother continued her fight to live.

“It was painful and at the same time it was heartwarming because I had the chance to pray with my mom, with the pastor,” he said before turning to Deegan to tell him, ‘Thank you, God bless you.’”

“You’re bringing tears to my eyes, ” Deegan said as he removed his glasses to wipe the tears away before pausing to remember once again why he shows up every day.

___

Associated Press photographer Jae Hong and Associated Press videographer Eugene Garcia contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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