Hospital chaplains may be some of the most critical workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, always there to listen and offer comfort to the ailing. But the virus has in some ways changed their mission, and now in some cases, they help say a final farewell to patients who are separated from their families because of COVID-19.
As hospitals try to keep the virus at bay, patients often don't have access to human contact other than doctors and nurses -- and if they wish, hospital chaplains.
"My faith tells me I need to do this and I am called to serve people," Nemesio Santana, a chaplain graduate from LA’s Saint Camillus Center for Spiritual Care, said.
Santana is one of six chaplains to graduate Thursday from the center. He said his work in hospitals is very different these days.
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"There's a fear. But there's also a sense of accompanying the patients," Santana said.
Santa is also a seminarian, studying to become a priest. This chaplaincy program was a choice.
"I chose it because I wanted to experience what it is to be a minister and to encounter people where they're at, experience their suffering and pain and hunger for spiritual well-being,” he said.
Stephanie Ramos is an intern chaplain at County-USC Hospital. She said their work heavily relies on connecting patients with their families.
"If they’re put between four walls, a ceiling and a floor and they’re unable to get that touch from their family member or see the eyes of a family member, it is so difficult. We are there to be that presence for them,” Ramos said.
Fr. Chris Ponnet runs the program at St. Camillus, which this year was forced to move into the virtual realm because of the pandemic. He said the work they do gives meaning to the word "essential," as they meet so many suffering trauma or serious illness.
"We are often the only non nurse, doctor, that’s coming into their room," Chris Ponnet, St. Camillus Center for Spiritual Care. "It's also a moment of faith where people begin to say what is important in their life.”
During the peak of the pandemic in Italy, some 12 chaplains died of the virus and there have been cases like that in the U.S. as well.
For Ramos, being present with those who have no one to turn to is the strongest form of humble help she provides.
"I can't fix this Covid. I can't fix a lot of things that are going on here, but I can be present for the person,” Ramos said.