About a year into his job as a chaplain at AdventHealth Orlando in central Florida, United States, Jamie Ricketts, a native of Alberta, Canada, encountered something none of his training prepared him for: a global pandemic that had reached the community he serves.
“Who could have imagined something like this happening?” Ricketts said. “The impact is so unprecedented, it requires us to innovate as we work.”
According to data released by Johns Hopkins University, by June 8, 2020, more than 7 million people worldwide had been infected with COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus. And, globally, more than 400,000 people have died from the disease, the same data reveal. (In the United States, almost 2 million COVID-19 cases had been confirmed, and more than 110,000 had died as of June 8.)
But each death is individual, and each is freighted with human need and emotion. Before the pandemic forced lockdowns and restrictions across the country, it was common for a number of family members or friends to be at the bedside when a patient was critically ill or dying. Now, hospitals are no-visitation zones in many places, particularly when COVID-19 illnesses are involved. One person, at most, may be permitted in some circumstances.
It’s not only COVID-19 patients who are cut off from hospital visits, however. New mothers and those recuperating from other illnesses or surgeries also experience minimal visitation.
For chaplains such as Jamie Ricketts, the restrictions are a new challenge in helping families deal with life-changing medical events, particularly in end-of-life situations.
“It’s frustrating for them not being able to be by their loved one’s side,” Ricketts said. “I know that they’re going through a wide gamut of emotions and stressors during this time.”
Fortunately for the families of patients in AdventHealth — and the patients themselves — technology has entered the picture, enabling families and patients to communicate via virtual visits. While not the same as being in the room, it is often not only the next best way but also the only way to visit.
Within the first two and a half weeks of the pandemic’s arrival in Florida, AdventHealth leaders created and implemented a program that put 1,000 tablets and computers in facilities for use in connecting patients with family members via video.
“It was a collaboration of several areas [within AdventHealth],” explained Pam Guler, vice president and chief experience officer for the organization. “Chaplains, experience leaders, the IT team, and nursing team — coming together very quickly to plan how we can help our families and team members.”
Almost any mass deployment of technology will have details that need to be worked out. Still, Guler lauded the information technology staff at AdventHealth, who, she said, were able to set up the communications platform in just two days.
“The benefits of these virtual visits for family members is tangible,” Guler said.
“The reaction is deep gratitude for the ability to be there with their family members in this very trying situation. It’s a relief, it’s gratitude, and it’s grief,” Guler said. “This platform alleviates the horror of not being able to be there, and families are desperate for this. They have just been so emotionally moved by being able to talk with their loved ones.”
In one instance, an elderly woman whose COVID-19 case was terminal was unable to see her son, who also had symptoms of the disease. An in-person visit was impossible, and the son lacked the technology at home for a video connection. So, Guler said, a nurse “facilitated a visit from the parking lot, getting him able to see his mom.”
Guler said the nurse, who had a full set of personal protective equipment, or PPE, “held that device so he could see Mom and say goodbye. He wasn’t able to do that from home. It was something he will never forget. And our nurse was sobbing as he did this.”
Sometimes, Guler said, the news is far more encouraging. A 20-year-old woman with COVID-19 had been on a ventilator, cut off from family. A virtual visit was arranged with her parents, who were joyous at seeing their daughter after she’d been taken off the ventilator.
Preparing the chaplaincy staff for such encounters — and providing a new form of service during crisis — is the responsibility of Greg Ellis and his team. Ellis, assistant vice president for mission and ministry in AdventHealth’s Central Florida Division, said the virtual visits have been significant, as has been a dignity pause,” where the medical staff caring for an individual observe 60 seconds of quiet when a patient passes away to show respect for the patient.
Ellis added, “We also have survivor celebrations when patients leave the unit. The moments when people leave and get better is an important part of them coping as well.”
“All of our chaplains across the company have taken basic training in providing stress support group processes for the clinicians to find release for their emotions and walk through that process,” Ellis said.
Along with highly appreciative families, the chaplains themselves are learning new ways to minister to patients and families in restrictive circumstances and about the core mission in an unprecedented time.
“Our whole focus here is extending the healing ministry of Jesus Christ,” Ricketts said. “I feel like this has been a reminder that a mission firmly grounded in One who is eternal equips us to respond to the unexpected.”