Published April 16, 2020
ATLANTA—Father Patrick Scully is a chaplain at Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital, the Catholic hospital in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
He began serving at the facility in 2017. Father Scully has learned the novel coronavirus pandemic demands new ways to serve. With the COVID-19 crisis, he shares words of hope muffled through face masks, keeps safe distances while praying with hospital staff and leans on technology to aid families who cannot visit loved ones hospitalized because of restrictions.
On April 13, Father Scully had a moving encounter, facilitated by an iPad and phone, between a mother who is a COVID-19 patient and a son who is hospitalized on another floor. The son is not allowed to visit his mother since she is positive and on a closed unit, and he does not have the virus.
“So I went into the COVID unit/room gowned and masked but armed with a frontline weapon against the virus, the iPad, said the chaplain. “Through his phone and the iPad I was holding in front of her, they shared their love for each other, which was particularly poignant whereas the mother may be going from here into hospice care and her son hadn’t seen her in a month.”
Staff writer Andrew Nelson reached out to Father Scully so he could share some of his story. The email exchange has been edited for length.
How is the Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital chaplaincy organized?
Chaplaincy is a direct legacy of the Sisters of Mercy who see around the clock presence of chaplains everywhere in the hospital as vital to its mission. We have three full time clinical chaplains, several clinical pastoral education student chaplains and several other chaplains.
What did your days look like before the pandemic arrived?
Before the arrival of COVID-19, chaplains would typically go on rounds to the ICU in the morning along with doctors and nurses. At Emory Saint Joseph’s (ESJH), we also hold Mass in the morning. Chaplains regularly visit patients’ rooms morning, noon and into the evening. We respond when patients pass away or have life-threatening cardiac or respiratory events. Sometimes a nurse or a doctor will request that we be on hand while talking to a patient about a challenging diagnosis.
What proportion of patients seek spiritual care?
We assume spiritual care can happen anywhere, anytime, and not just for patients but also families and staff. So we round regularly on all floors and check in with nurses. At other hospitals, the chaplain may enter a room only when specifically asked for by a patient or nurse. At ESJH, we ask if we can enter any room at any time if the patient and family will permit. We aim to offer a visit for all patients within the first 72 hours. Ordinarily upon admission, a patient is asked if they’ll welcome a visit, and a great many do. But most meet chaplains by our effort to reach out. A list is produced every day of those requesting chaplain support.
I’ve heard of chaplains having to talk with patients via telephones and video conferences and to families remotely. Is that something done at Emory Saint Joseph’s?
Yes, we are doing that increasingly. We call into the room if the patient is able to talk and will then call families. If the patient allows, we relay to family who can’t visit the patient’s spirits, concerns, worries and hopes. We do not relay clinical data or progress reports because that is the role of the care team. Our role is to listen at length, affirm and explore the meaning of what the patient and family may be experiencing. We sometimes pray over the phone. We often coordinate with other care teams, such as palliative care.
How does it feel to have to practice distancing or use technology? It must be very different from your training? Talking with other chaplains, I’ve heard much of your role is a ministry of presence. How difficult is it to serve like that in the current environment?
At one level, it is not too difficult, because we chaplains are inclined to care, especially during crisis. But on another level, this type of “distance caring” is kind of contrary to our training, because much of chaplaincy is non-verbal. The masks that we wear so often now cover the facial expressions and muffle the words. Also, the physical “presence” of a chaplain normally means taking a seat to show focus and generosity of time, whereas many other clinicians must enter the room to complete a task or deliver information by speaking. Chaplains try to focus on listening at length. Plus, chaplains listen for significant stories, not just what brought them to the hospital. We hold up hidden values the patient may be expressing, such as sacrifice, devotion, persistence and perseverance. We try to honor their memories, such as life before they were sick or when life was better or worse for them. We often deliberately elicit emotions such as regret, grief, fear, anxiety, gratitude and hope.
The pandemic has certainly introduced some new challenges for chaplains. Before the pandemic, we could connect with people by a hug or a gesture to speak what words can’t say. Those kinds of reassurances are off limits now due to our efforts at maintaining social distancing, but we’ve found new ways to connect with patients, especially through the use of technology.
As a Catholic hospital, Mass would be celebrated frequently. Has it been suspended there too? What other spiritual tools have you used during this time?
I continue to offer Mass here because we have patients who watch from their close circuit TV in their room. Mass is offered five days a week, including Sundays. Prior to COVID-19 and for the last 25 years, about 150 local residents, staff and some patients would come to Sunday Mass every week. Like others in the region, that public Mass is now suspended. In addition, we have maintained the practice of offering a prayer over the loudspeaker in the morning and evening. Patients and family often comment how much it means to them to hear those prayers.
Since Catholic faith is incarnational, I rely on walking around the hospital as much as I can to connect in person with patients as well as our staff members. In fact, I have more time these days to be laser-focused on supporting our staff, which is critical at this time. That may also mean offering a short, five-minute gathering of nurses on a unit or break room to pray for one another in a small group while maintaining social distancing.
Do you have people of other faiths there?
Although this is still a Catholic hospital in name and practice, carrying on the legacy of the sisters who founded it 140 years ago, a minority of our patients self-identify as Catholic. We have patients of all faiths and others who do not identify with any religion in their adulthood. We believe all people are profoundly spiritual, including those who do not believe in a higher power or creator. I have prayed with people from many faiths and religions.
Do you face different end-of-life rituals?
We are able to call on community clergy or ministers if specific end-of-life rituals are requested, but we chaplains train to pray with anyone and everyone who might ask, especially at end of life, if they welcome us to do so.
Is the hospital seeing those patients stricken with the illness?
Emory Healthcare is treating patients with suspected and confirmed COVID-19.
Either by first-hand experience or reading the news, what have you learned about God during these times?
I have learned that, much as we may deny it, the polarization our country (and globe) seems to revel in, whether it be race, language, immigration status, religion, gender, orientation and the political swords people are typically willing to fall on—all of that falls by the wayside at a time like this in favor of what are actually traditional tried and true basics of Catholic spirituality and ethics. First, the inviolable dignity of the human person, which brooks no facile calculation about who deserves care and who doesn’t. Second, the common good, which bids us to answer Cain’s biblical question with a robust “Yes, we are our brother’s (sister’s) keeper,” and far closer, in fact, to one another than we are ordinarily comfortable admitting. Being a Bostonian by birth, I recall what JFK said, “We all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future.”
What do you understand about faith at this time?
Our brother or sister nurses may have to wear personal protective equipment to help the sick, but donning that equipment (as I have to do as well when anointing COVID-19 patients) can be seen as a metaphor like St. Paul when he said we must “put on Christ,” to care for oneself, precisely in order to care in times of plague/pandemic, etc., for our neighbor. I’d venture to say that is why the Catholic hospital system remains even to this day one of the largest single non-for-profit healthcare systems in this country and the world. From nurses who were sisters ages ago—who labored to care in dangerous situations without fear of infecting children or spouses at home—Catholic healthcare has a long legacy lived by the Sisters of Mercy and others that led them to the front lines, field hospitals in past wars and today as a witness to Christ’s love at work in the face of death.
For me that love and service is patently on display not only now during a crisis in any given healthcare system, but especially in a Catholic hospital like this, whose mission it is to “care for the poor and the vulnerable” in a supererogatory fashion. It is my great honor to be associated with and witness to this “Mercy in Action” we like to call it every day. I have never been more convinced of God’s comforting presence and fulfilled in my work as I am here at Emory Saint Joseph’s.