COVID-19 Crisis: Chaplains Care for Staff Through Surge

Cedars-Sinai's Chief Rabbi Says Surge Inspired Spiritual Care Team to Create "Code Calm" to Help Frontline Healthcare Staff

Newswise — LOS ANGELES (Jan. 27, 2021) -- Cedars-Sinai chaplains usually spend their days rounding on patients, tending to the sick and their families by offering a listening ear, a guiding word or a hopeful prayer.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has altered their workload, with chaplains increasingly tending to the needs of tired, frustrated and burnt-out frontline healthcare workers.

"We always care for both patients and staff, but now it's actually slightly more focused on staff," said Jason Weiner, PhD, senior rabbi and director of the Spiritual Care Department.

After an early fall plateau, COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles County and across the state rose in late November. The result was an unprecedented surge in patients through the holidays and into the new year, leaving doctors and nurses pleading for the public to follow precautions and guidelines, like wearing masks and avoiding social gatherings.

"We're seeing a lot of overwhelmed, exhausted staff members who are just looking at how bad things are getting right now," Weiner said. "After 10 months of this pandemic, our staff members already were exhausted, and this surge has been overwhelming. They’re just tired and frustrated."

The increased stress levels have led the chaplains to create a project called Code Calm. The program brings calming and stress-release tools to staff via a cart, pushed by a chaplain.

The cart is filled with items like prayer cards, books, printed quotes, snacks and aromatherapy oils.

"We just use that as an entry point to kind of check in and listen and talk to them and have some time to just support them and give them a break," Weiner said.

It's also an opportunity to check in on which patients might need more spiritual care, Weiner said.

"A lot of COVID-19 patients means a lot of concerned family members," he said. "A nurse might have a patient whose family is calling 50 times a day, and in that case, a chaplain can help by acting as a liaison with the family, or we may check in and find that the patient is just really lonely and needs company, so we can spend some extra time with them."

The winter holiday season was especially frustrating for both patients and staff. Normally a time for holiday parties and a little time off, clinicians at Cedars-Sinai faced some of the worst days of the pandemic.

"It was really all hands on deck with COVID-19," Weiner said.

Instead of the normal in-person celebrations, chaplains brought dozens of hospital-friendly electric menorahs to patients who celebrated Hanukkah, and prerecorded a music, comedy and dance-filled "Christmas Extravaganza" for those who celebrated Christmas.

Lead Christian Chaplain Reverend Peggy Kelley was one of the chaplains who worked throughout the holiday season. She said that, while COVID-19 has been so difficult for so many, there have been rewarding moments as well.

Kelley said one of those happy occasions happened when she woke up at 3:30 a.m. on Christmas, unable to sleep, and found an email from a patient she had prayed with just the night before. The patient, who had been waiting for a transplant, had received notification that the organ she needed was available, and would be getting the transplant soon.

"It was a beautiful and restorative moment for me," Kelley said. "It reminded me that there's so much more than COVID-19 going on. We transplant organs that save lives. We help people. We heal people."

The Christmas Eve prayer she had shared with that patient was one of hope.

"We had prayed about how COVID can't cancel everything," Kelley said. "COVID-19 can't cancel hope. It can't cancel joy. It can't cancel miracles. It can't cancel what's to come."

Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Good News You May Have Missed in 2020

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