Chaplain Dale Swan tells of his Hospice work in COVID times

By Norris Burkes, Dec 13 2020

Two years ago I wrote a column titled, “Fake News Hurts Real People.”

The column detailed the difficult health situation my brother is in because he filled his days listening to conspiracy theories and alternate health realities.

Today that column title is even more real to me. 

My brother, an ardent no-masker, is a COVID patient on a ventilator in a Las Vegas ICU. 

He wouldn’t believe me when I told him COVID was real. And maybe you or someone you know is also denying the science.

If so, take a moment to read the testimony of my hospital-chaplain friends. They’ve asked me to tell my readers that COVID is real. 

Most of my fellow chaplains asked me not to use their location or real name. However, I will begin with my friend, Chaplain Roger Williams, who emailed me last August to say his hospital had treated 722 COVID patients with 152 deaths. 

I can’t tell you what the current numbers are from his hospital because he died from cancer a month later. However, I do know that his county is under a stay-at-home order as the available ICU beds hover between 6-8%.

I also know that numbers are increasing everywhere and are making some chaplain colleagues angry. 

“Anger seems to be my new companion,” said one. “I’m angry at the lack of national leadership, angry that more people die every day. That anger melts into sadness when I wonder how different it might have been if this country had come together as we have so many times before during difficult times.” 

Chaplains tell me they can’t understand why people claim the virus isn’t serious. An East Coast chaplain wrote to tell me his ICUs are “closed red zones because of COVID with another 2-4 floors closed as well. Approximately one-third of the ER cases are probable COVID.” 

Chaplains often use touch to communicate God’s presence. However, my colleague added that “COVID is so rampant in our hospital that the chaplain staff can only bring spiritual care through phone calls with the families or the patients.”

“Currently,” wrote another chaplain, “We wear a gown, 2 pairs of gloves, and a PAPR (Powered Air Purifying Respirator.) Then, we follow the intricate procedures for taking them off.”

Even hospice chaplains who are accustomed to multiple deaths are having difficult days. My friend, Dale Swan, wrote to say his patients are cut off from spiritual care with no visits since March. “Video visits are nearly impossible with our hospice patients who have cognitive challenges. COVID patients are only seen by their nurses.”

Swan says, “Aside from all the gear I must wear, my biggest frustration is that my visits with dying patients are limited to 15 minutes.”

One chaplain manager spoke of the frustration patients experience as they die alone in “….profound chaos and loneliness. People are dying alone and wondering how this got to be their life. They ask for chaplain support with the emotional and physical death, but I wonder if I’ll continue to have the strength for just another day.”

“Our ICU-COVID cases are up significantly – ages 30-70,” reported another close friend. “We can visit most COVID patients through TeleVisits. Sacraments are only given by the few chaplains willing to provide those rites in person. 

“It’s not uncommon that families will use an iPad to watch their loved one die. I’ve lost count of COVID-related deaths I’ve attended in the last few months. One family asked to see their loved one in the morgue and said, ‘I didn’t think COVID was real,’” my friend quoted the daughter saying.

“It is stressful and real,” the chaplain told me, “but we are currently holding our own. The staff are having to up their game with extra precautions with a single nurse assigned to each COVID case.

“Our COVID nurses are all-stars,” he said.

The chaplains see serious nursing shortages as pregnant staff or those with health issues are unable to work on the dedicated COVID units. This is the very thing that prompted our Surgeon General, Vice Admiral (VADM) Jerome M. Adams,

to say this week, “This surge is different because it’s really about health-care capacity.” 

Finally, one chaplain wrote to describe the impact fake news had on his father. “My father died of COVID after three days in the hospital with no family present and no one to say prayers and sing hymns. Despite his stated wishes to be surrounded by his family at death, we held his memorial on Zoom.  

“My father was real. His name was Melvin Nefstead of Pine River, Minn. Please help people know this disease is real,” the chaplain pleaded. “Blessings as you do.”


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