Chaplaincy in the time of COVID-19

Friday, Jun. 26, 2020
By Linda Petersen
Intermountain Catholic

SALT LAKE CITY — Fr. Bruce Clapham, chief chaplain at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City, recently had his first experience with offering counseling by videoconference. The need to offer spiritual direction to an outpatient came about prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic; such an approach will be common in the future, he said. “There’s a possibility you could be a VA chaplain in Moab, Utah in the future.”
At the hospital, the staff and chaplains normally serve an average of about 100 inpatients, about 30 percent of whom are Catholic. Prior to COVID-19, Fr. Clapham regularly celebrated Mass in the hospital chapel for a small group of family members of patients and staff members. He took Communion to patients who requested it and regularly visited patients. 
Now, under COVID-19, the job of chaplain has become more difficult, he said. In the early days of the pandemic, just one patient at the VA hospital was diagnosed with the disease and recovered quickly.
“It didn’t really turn on us until after they started opening up the economy,” Fr. Clapham said. “It got intense real quick, right then and there.” 
After there was an outbreak at the William E. Christoffersen Salt Lake Veterans Home on the VA campus, several virus patients were admitted to the hospital. Most of them have since recovered; Fr. Clapham estimates there are eight to nine still hospitalized at the VA.
Getting ready to combat the disease and to prepare for the new patients was a herculean task, and all the chaplains were pressed into service, gathering emergency supplies and Personal Protective Equipment, along with setting up tents, Fr. Clapham said.
“Chaplains were doing things they were never trained for,” he said. “Luckily, all our chaplains have had training in decontamination for hazardous chemicals. The role of a chaplain is pretty broad when it comes to an emergency; we jump in wherever we are qualified.”
Once everything was ready, the chaplains helped staff the checkpoints where those entering the hospital are checked for coronavirus symptoms. 
“The big concern in those early days was P. P.E. – we didn’t have enough,” Fr. Clapham said.  
Therefore, except in the most critical of situations, the chaplains were unable to visit patients. Instead, they performed spiritual assessments and checked on patients by phone. 
Four or five of the coronavirus patients were Catholic, he said, and he contacted each of them by phone. 
“They were amazingly calm and relaxed; you could tell that they had a great spirituality,” Fr. Clapham said.
Worship services at the hospital have been suspended indefinitely for the safety of the staff and patients, so Fr. Clapham has mostly celebrated Mass at his coffee table at home, he said. 
As he has ministered in this pandemic world, he has drawn strength from the Liturgy of the Hours.
“The best thing I can do spiritually is just be faithful to the Liturgy of the Hours; that’s pretty critical for me,” he said. “That is a real strength in this moment; it causes me to reflect a little bit more.” 
While only a few patients have been admitted with COVID-19, Fr. Clapham feels the hospital is prepared if there is a surge in patients.
Medical Director Shella Stoval “has done a bang up job of getting this hospital ready to take action,” he said.
Still, “I don’t want people to get lackadaisical about this, especially if you’re elderly; we don’t know enough about this disease to play around,” Fr. Clapham said. “I would tell people: wear the mask, do the social distancing and just be really careful. My message is, don’t play around with this; make sure you practice good common sense. I am worried about an outbreak next fall, if not sooner, but I think that if we practice good common sense that things will probably work out OK.”

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