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Hospital Chaplains Bring Hope And Solace To COVID-19 Patients And Staff


One of the hardest things about serious cases of COVID-19 is that people end up in the hospital in isolation and unable to be close to their loved ones. As the death toll mounts in the United States, hospital chaplains have become a much needed source of hope and solace. And some are supporting hospital staff as much as they are patients and families. We're joined now by Mike Yonkers, a chaplain for the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, one of the epicenters of the outbreak. Chaplain, welcome to the program. Thank you so much for joining us today.

MIKE YONKERS: I'm glad to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you tell us about the last case of COVID-19 that you had to deal with and describe what happened?

YONKERS: Oh, yeah. Our profession is very much trying to get close to people. We try to empathize with people in person. And most of our care is often given nonverbally, really, to patients, a holding of the hand, an anointing of your forehead with oil. So the last person I actually worked with was one of our patients who is about to be on the way out of the hospital because he's on the way to be getting better. So I called him up, and he didn't know that I was calling. But I basically said, hey, I'm one of the supportive care folks here to check in on your spirit. Would you welcome just to chat and see how you're coping?

And he was happy to have a visit, really. And what we do as chaplains are often trying to think about how do you cope during this time? What are your inner resources to be able to make it? If you need bread for your soul, what is that bread essentially? But what he really was reflecting on is, I think - not to quote him exactly, but he said I feel blessed to fall into the hands of really, really, really good care here. And so he was reflecting on how he's essentially mostly made it through this at this point.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I understand you've had to get creative in other ways - not just phone calls, but you actually printed out a prayer for a nurse to hold over a patient's bed at the request of his family. Can you tell me about that?

YONKERS: Yeah, they were hoping for someone to pray over their loved one. And I thought, OK, I can't physically go into the room to pray over them, but I can get creative another way. So what I did as I walked over just to the nursing area, got to know the nurse a little bit and then just asked everything I could know about the patient. Who is he? How old is he? Does he have family? Do we know anything about what he likes in life?

And then essentially, once I got a little bit of a picture of him, I went back to my office, wrote up a prayer as quick as I could. We gathered outside of the room and offered this prayer that I wrote. And then to put the prayer over him, the nurse who can go into the room brought it in and then hung it over this patient over their head, I believe. And I don't know how they did it. They taped it or strung it up or whatever. But I know that the prayer is over this person.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of course, amongst all this is the hospital staff who are feeling overwhelmed. Can you talk a little bit about how you are helping them to cope with this frightening time? What do you ask them to think about?

YONKERS: Oh. People can drop in, and we do mindfulness exercises with them. And then some people who may be spiritual - to offer them a blessing or prayer. However, it is that you find grounding in your life, we're happy to talk about that with you when you're feeling anxious or ungrounded. But really, we're trying to engage the many - in different ways in which people are coming here with fears and also courage and bravery at the same time and trying to honor all of that, really. It's mostly just an acknowledgement of the fact that you are here and that your work doesn't go unacknowledged and it that is essential, really.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As a man of faith, what words of comfort do you have for those who are listening right now who are feeling frightened?

YONKERS: Yeah, I really do draw from my own spiritual tradition where we acknowledge that people often do have to go or societies have to go through exile or wilderness at different times and that even when you're in a wilderness or exile - the pandemic could be something like that. And when you're in that wilderness, you can still work for the peace or the shalom of wherever you live for your neighborhood. And my words of hope are really just that anyone can be a peace bringer during this time and that it's similar to Mister Rogers, where he says look for the helpers. But look for the peacemakers. And also, you can be a peacemaker at this time, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was hospital chaplain Mike Yonkers in Seattle, Wash. Thank you very much.

YONKERS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.