‘I am grateful for the opportunity to be serving’

Silver Cross, St. Joe’s chaplains discuss their ministry during COVID-19

Three hospital chaplains recently shared their experiences ministering to staff, patients and families during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are Sister Josephine Mulcahey at AMITA Health Saint Joseph Medical Center in Joliet (left) and Eric Ngum (bottom right), also from St. Joe's, and Barbara Manning from Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox.

The role of hospital chaplains has always been to provide spritual care to patients, their families and hospital staff.

But COVID-19 tested chaplains’ abilities to provide that care, especially when they couldn’t be physically present to the ones who needed them most.

Sister Josephine Mulcahey and Eric Ngum, chaplains at AMITA Health Saint Joseph Medical Center, and Barbara Manning, a board-certified chaplain at Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox, share their experiences.

Sister Josephine Mulcahey

In the 30 years that Sister Josephine Mulcahey has worked as a chaplain at St. Joe’s, she has never seen anything as “terrible” as COVID 19.

“It almost became like an empty town,” Mulcahey said of the hospital. “Walking down the hall, the only ones we did see were those gowned with masks and gloves on, with special containers over their faces. It was kind of unnerving at first.”

Families couldn’t see patients – whether or not the patients had COVID-19 – or enter the chapel or cafeteria, she said. And patients expressed their concern over it, she added.

“But I was able to be with the patients and hear their cries for help, to be present to them and let them know we are here for them,” Mulcahey, who did not work on the COVID-19 floor, said. “They felt this loss of being connected to their loved ones, especially those who did not use cell phones.”

Mulcahey recalled the man who said, “I miss my wife,” but was thankful he could connect via cell phone or FaceTime. She’s thankful that God blessed them with “great technology” in the form of computers, smartphones and iPads.

Mulcahey said the sacraments of Communion, Confession and Anointing of the Sick were given to Catholic patients at St. Joe’s throughout the pandemic to all patients who “wished to and can receive them, following the protocols of the local bishop.”

“Some of them cried when they received the Eucharist,” Mulcahey said.

Mulcahey often stopped at the nurses’ stations, too. She listened to the nurses, tried to address their needs, and offered her prayers, support and presence.

“A couple of nurses explained how sad they were that they could not give more support sometimes to patients,” Mulcahey said.

That’s where Mulcahey helped fill that gap.

“Being a chaplain, I was privileged to listen to people’s stories and to offer comfort and prayer,” she said.

Mulcahey herself found strength by remaining connected to other Sisters – and one she knew did die from COVID-19 – reading books about miracles and praying Psalm 91.

She felt the availability of tests some treatments and – finally – a vaccines has helped calm people’s fear down. But she is also aware that “we’re not safe just because we have a shot.”

“The fear of this disease still lingers, I think,” Mulcahey said. “I am grateful for the opportunity to be serving.”

Eric Ngum

While serving as a pastor, Ngum found great fulfillment in visiting people in the hospital, which is what led him to become a hospital chaplain, he said.

After Ngum joined the St. Joe’s team of six chaplains in October 2019, he ministered to patients directly at their bedside and he ministered to families in the patient rooms and in the waiting rooms, he said. This past year, Ngum spent more time coordinating virtual visits with patients and families.

Still, Ngum said he found fulfilment in reassuring family members that their loved ones didn’t die alone, that a nurse was there with them.

“Then you call up the loved ones and support them and cry with them,” Ngum said.

Ngum said he supported staff who lost loved ones from COVID-19 and other illnesses even as they cared for patients with the virus. he said it’s becoming even more apparent as the pandemic is winding down the amount of stress and risk the nurses have shouldered to care for patients.

He feels privileged to do his part in the healing process.

“We bring to people that comfort, calm, compassionate presence that lets them wander away from their illness and to have a moment to think about what is meaningful and purposeful to them,” Ngum said.

Ngum said he found strength in the prayers Mulcahey led every morning – especially in the early days of the virus when it appeared that “the sky was falling,” he said.

He and Mulcahey took turns praying over the intercom twice a day so patients, families and staff could hear the prayers. He’s thankful none of the chaplains caught the virus and that their team spirit has been unwavering.

Ngum said he did experience a “sense of fear” that he might become infected or carry the virus home to his wife – who is a nurse – or to his children, he said.

“But then you come back every day because that’s what you do,” Ngum said. “I don’t know how I would have felt if I had to work from home. I don’t think that would have been very good for me. I’m glad I was in the hospital every day and talking with people and helping the nurses and staff – supporting everyone in the midst of the pandemic.

Barbara Manning

Manning has spent nearly 15 years at Silver Cross Hospital. Six years ago, Manning went from working as an administrative assistant at the hospital to serving as its board-certified chaplain.

She’d already had a bachelor’s degree in theology and a master’s degree in spirituality. Her husband is an ordained deacon at their Catholic church. During her chaplaincy training, Manning found she really liked being present for people in their times of needs, she said.

Because hospitals can be very scary places for people who are sick, especially when they are facing the unknown and when they don’t have visitors, she said.

“During a chapel visit, I might be the only companionship they’ve had,” Manning said. “[I liked] just being able to hold their hand or stroke their forehead, maybe as they’re passing – and hearing their stories of their faith, their beliefs and what that has meant in their lives.”

Before COVID-19, Manning did respond to the trauma pages. She’d receive a list of people who requested to see a chaplain and she’d make the rounds of the various floors in case anyone needed her services.

But since the pandemic Manning had to move the breast cancer support group she leads online. She had to cancel the annual baby bereavement service. She had to talk and pray with patients over the phone and connect priests to patients through FaceTime “so the priest could give them a blessing and pray with them,” she said.

“The patients thanked me for calling and praying with them,” Manning said. “But it’s not the same.”

Catholic patients at Silver Cross have not been able to receive Communion. So Manning was ready with a prayer for spiritual active Communion that she prays with patients, she said. Sometimes patients call her directly.

“I pray with them,” Manning said. “And listen to them, too.”

Manning has prayed with staff members right in the hallway when they’ve had a loss and she’s left inspirational messages by their workspaces. She’s also placed finger labyrinths in the breakrooms.

“If they ... trace the labyrinth slowly, they can rest their mind and spirit as well as the body,” Manning said. “And so they can just let go of the challenges and demands of the day.”

She’s found strength in perseverance and “thinking outside the box.” and in conference calls with other chaplains, including those who work in palliative care.

But not being able to touch patients or families is very challenging.

“So many times, you just want to give them that shoulder to cry on,” Manning said. “Besides not being able to do that, you have to keep six feet apart and wear a face shield.”