Fear, sadness, and pain can surround a patient suffering acute illness such as COVID-19. Front-line physicians and nurses are working tirelessly to provide the excellent medical care.
But there is also a team of 50 spiritual care professionals in Kaiser Permanente Northern California who inspire joy, strengthen resilience, and bring comfort to the patients.
“We are here to help humanize this difficult experience,” said Carrie Buckner, director of Spiritual Care Services for Kaiser Permanente Alameda County. “People need a way to normalize their feelings, and we’re here to do that.”
Buckner is also co-chair of the Spiritual Care Leaders Peer Group for the Northern California region. Spiritual care professionals are comprised of palliative and hospice specialists and acute care chaplains who provide a diverse range of spiritual and emotional support.
During the COVID-19 public health crisis, the work of these staff members has taken on a new look. Because patient visitors are not allowed at Kaiser Permanente facilities for safety reasons, spiritual care teams have found new ways of caring for patients and connecting them to their loved ones.
“Every day we call or Facetime the family members of our COVID-19 patients,” Buckner said. “We reassure them, support them, and let them know we are praying for them.”
Small Things Make a Big Difference
Lisa Schilbe, acute care chaplain at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco, teared up as she recalled the special moments shared with her COVID-19 patients.
Recently diagnosed with the disease and in isolation, an elderly woman was frustrated because she had forgotten her reading glasses at home. The second Schilbe heard this, she tracked down a new pair of glasses and, knowing the patient was Jewish, also gifted her a Passover packet filled with goodies.
“These patients miss their families,” she said. “I’m here to be a calming presence and a voice of encouragement, of hope, and of peace.”
Another of Schilbe’s patients expressed that she didn’t feel God’s presence while awaiting COVID-19 test results. Knowing the patient was Catholic, Schilbe prayed with her over the phone then collected rosary beads, a ceramic heart, and a card on which she wrote positive affirmations and her name and phone number to be reached at any time.
“The nurse shared that the patient’s test results came back negative, and she was moved out of isolation,” Schilbe said. “I was able to hand her the rosary and heart myself. It was a touching moment.”
Both Schilbe and Buckner shared countless stories about the ways they have brought smiles to their patients’ faces.
Medical Workers Need Encouragement, Too
Long days, exceptionally hard experiences, and stress have naturally taken a toll on Kaiser Permanente’s clinicians during this unprecedented time. Many spiritual care members have offered guidance, reassurance, and support to front-line staff who need it.
“We pray for those who ask us to,” said Buckner. “We encourage staff to use good self-care practices and we try to show our deep gratitude for their incredible work.”
At the San Francisco Medical Center, a quiet room was set up for staff to relax, refocus, and have reprieves between shifts. Weekly calls have also been scheduled, some led by spiritual care team members, for employees to express their challenges and tribulations.
Although times are difficult, Schilbe tells her patients and peers to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and to always remember the power of compassion.
“My hope is that at the end of this, the world will have greater compassion for one another and realize we all need each other.”