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'A brokenness in my heart': Healthcare chaplains discuss ministering during time of COVID-19

As we enter 2021 with the numbers higher than ever, two healthcare chaplains say this year has taken an enormous emotional and physical toll on everyone

HOUSTON COUNTY, Ga. — As we enter 2021, with the numbers higher than ever, two healthcare chaplains here in Central Georgia say this year has taken an enormous emotional and physical toll on everyone.

The United States reported 3,744 new COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday. The highest one-day total since the start of the pandemic.

Hospitalizations are also surging as a record high of 125,220 people are currently hospitalized.

More than 80,000 Americans could die of COVID-19 over the next three weeks, a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ensemble forecast predicts.

As many people die without family members by their side because of COVID-19 protocols, Navicent Health decided to change their visitation policy and allow "essential visitors" to some patients who are nearing the end of their life.

"When you're not able able to be there and have that closure at the end, that's just difficult and for our teammates to have to stand in the gap over and over and over again, that's such a difficult thing to do," Navicent CMO Doctor Patrice Walker said.

Jerry Bisping, head chaplain at Houston Medical Center says the way they comfort patients and their families has changed in the last 10 months.

"The first month or two was quite drastic. We were not allowed to go up to the hospital," he said. "Then, we were able to go and see patients who were in non-COVID beds."

He says now, they go see patients who are not infected with the virus when they are requested or talk to patients and families over video chat.

Bisping says by not being allowed on the COVID floors, he's left wishing he could do more.

"I understand them wanting to keep us safe, but at the same time, there is just a brokenness in my heart, and I think in the other chaplains' hearts, of not being able to be there for some of these COVID patients when they really need the comfort most of all."

Kevin Moore is a chaplain at Pine Pointe Hospice where they've had to keep family members away for their own health and safety.

"They're not able to be there when that person passed. It used to be 15 people in a room gathered around a bedside of an individual who was passing away, that's not the case now."

Which puts an even bigger emotional strain on Moore and his team.

"It's really draining and exhausting. Hospice work by its very nature is difficult on your emotions. It's also a spiritually draining kind of thing," he said. "It is very rewarding and it has its place, but it has really increased the level of strain and stress knowing that you're not able to minister to the... there is something about a closeness that is just missing because of COVID-19 and we're having to work around it, work through it, tunnel under it as best we can."

Bisping says this year more than ever, they have had to be there to support not only the patients, but also the medical staff.

"I know that we have chaplains that call up every week to the various nurses stations, praying with them, asking them about their needs," he says. "Sometimes there is a tiredness that develops and sometimes frustration. Working real hard to try to save the lives of people and then to see them still pass away. That's tough."

He says they've all seen the true resilience of healthcare workers throughout this pandemic.

"Just reassuring them that they are some real heroes for today and I really believe that our heroes today are nurses and other medical staff that put their lives in danger just to care for people."

Both Bisping and Moore say one of the best things they can do, and we can all do, for patients, families and healthcare workers, is to listen.

"Encourage them to talk about what they are feeling and what is going on in their hearts and their minds and to just listen," Bisping said. "Listening is a very powerful thing at a time like that. Not having answers or being able to solve problems, but just being there and letting them know that you really care about them."

On Thursday, Houston Healthcare has 98 COVID-19 patients, while Coliseum Health System has 83.

Those totals are the highest they've been throughout the pandemic here in central Georgia.