Catholic hospitals draw on spiritual roots to support staff, patients

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Wendy Bradshaw, a vascular access registered nurse at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Sarasota, Fla., looks down before entering the isolation room of a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit Sept. 21, 2021. (CNS photo/Shannon Stapleton, Reuters)

As hospitals across Illinois and the rest of the country were inundated by COVID-19 patients in January, Chicago-area Catholic hospitals looked to their spiritual roots to offer support not only to patients but to staff members who are exhausted.

“People are just bone tired,” said John Halstead, chief mission officer for AMITA Health, which operates several faith-based hospitals in Illinois, including eight in the Archdiocese of Chicago. Health care has not been immune from the trend of employees leaving their jobs during the pandemic, he said, and many staff members have been unable to work during the COVID-19 surge caused by the omicron variant because they themselves had been infected, leaving units short-staffed.

“From a physical, emotional and spiritual dimension, our staff are frayed to a new level which is calling on us to be incredibly inventive and creative around how to address this not only for our patients but for our staff,” Halstead said.

Sometimes, he said, he thinks of the communities of women and men religious who founded the system’s hospitals over the last two centuries, often under difficult circumstances: sisters nursing patients through cholera epidemics, for example, or the Alexian Brothers, who were founded in the Rhineland in the 15th century, caring for victims of the Black Death.

“It kind of feels like we can look to them,” Halstead said.

On Jan. 12, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported 7,380 people hospitalized with COVID-19, the most of any day so far. On Jan. 10, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported a record number of COVID-19 hospitalizations across the country, 142,233. By Jan. 14, that number had risen to 157,272.

Patrick Cacchione, executive director of the Illinois Catholic Health Association said he was hearing the same thing from hospitals all over the state: Their staffs are depleted and weary, having to make ethical triage decisions as many of them serve economically depressed and marginalized communities without enough resources.

“Nurses, doctors and chaplains are facing extreme moral distress because of not being able to minister to people adequately,” Cacchione said. “Then there’s the moral and ethical dilemma around triage. At the beginning, it was who gets a ventilator? Now it’s who gets the drug treatments that are available and are becoming scarce?”

Bob Gordon, director of pastoral care at St. Bernard Hospital, 326 W. 64th St. in the Englewood neighborhood, said this surge is different from the ones in 2020, when COVID-19 was new.

“May of 2020 was really bad,” Gordon said. “We were still learning how to deal with it. It was overwhelming in terms of not being prepared for it. Now we know what to expect, we know how to treat it, but we have more people sick and fewer staff.”

Dennis Ryan, vice president for mission effectiveness at Holy Cross Hospital, 2701 W. 68th St. in the Marquette Park neighborhood, said the community around the hospital was the hardest hit area of the city when COVID-19 first struck. Now, it’s everywhere, but in some ways, it’s not as frightening.

“Treatments are better than they were before,” he said. “People know better how to protect themselves, and protective equipment is more available. But the level of fatigue is extremely high in staff at all levels. That goes from physicians and nurses through housekeepers and maintenance workers and food service.”

Ryan said the pastoral care staff has continued offer online or, when it can be done safely, in-person religious services and observances to help maintain normality. Chaplains are going on rounds to see patients, unlike early in the pandemic, but they must communicate with patients in isolation by phone or computer tablet.

They also make themselves available to staff, Ryan said.

“The number of our staff who have expressed an interest or who have asked for contact with chaplains has actually increased over this period of time,” he said. “The number of interactions — the amount of pastoral care that’s being provided for staff is noticeably higher than it has been before. I think that’s due to ongoing fatigue and there have been so many changes in how COVID has manifested itself.”

Gordon said it can be difficult for staff at St. Bernard, a small community hospital, to seek help from chaplains because staff members have been incredibly busy and there is only one chaplain assigned per shift. They do appreciate the daily Scripture quote — usually paired with artwork or a photograph — that he started sending to staff by email in the spring of 2020. Now he always attaches a printable version, because so many people wanted to share them.

Chaplains also invite staff members to join in prayer when they visit patients. Many of the staff and patients from the surrounding community are Baptists, and, Gordon said, he has often seen nurses and certified nursing assistants joining their patients in prayer.

At the same time, chaplains have tried to help the medical staff by, for example, calling families to reassure them that their loved ones are being cared for, even if doctors and nurses cannot respond to family members as quickly as they would like.

That outreach became even more important after St. Bernard closed its doors to most visitors on Christmas Eve because of the COVID-19 surge.

Halstead said AMITA has been able to use its behavioral health resources with pastoral care to offer support to staff members, creating what the system calls its “Culture or Caring” program, which maps all the resources available to employees.

It includes weekly virtual care calls for employees and response to units that are facing crises, along with other resources, and it’s something that will likely continue beyond the pandemic.

“We’re trying to cover the spiritual and emotional needs that we’re seeing from our providers,” he said, “so they have the reservoir to be able to minister to our patients.”

That’s continued to be important, especially during COVID-19’s omicron surge, when visitors are under tight restrictions and patients rely on staff for more support, he said.

“Our staff are often being the spiritual and emotional caregivers to our patients” he said, just as the religious founders of the hospitals were. “We’re relying on the same care set we had 100, 150 years ago. We too will come through this, not unscathed, but we will come through this. We don’t just hope for better times, but we know from the Gospel that we have reason for hope.”


  • catholic hospitals
  • covid-19

Related Articles