17 April 2020, The Tablet

Dublin chaplains share stories of hope and heartbreak

Dublin chaplains share stories of hope and heartbreak

People pass messages of thanks left outside Naas General Hospital
Brian Lawless/PA Wire/PA Images

Some of the 76 hospital chaplains serving in the Archdiocese of Dublin have shared first-hand experiences from the front line as they minister to the sick and dying amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It is extremely harrowing to see what patients and families are going through with this pandemic. Patients have not seen their family in weeks and feel isolated and lonely. Families are at home waiting to hear from the hospital and feel helpless,” Shauna Sweeny, Chaplain at Tallaght University Hospital in Dublin said.

Ms Sweeny is one of 40 lay and 36 ordained chaplains that provide this essential service across a wide range of healthcare facilities in the Archdiocese of Dublin.

“As a chaplain in such an unusual time, it is my role to try and support patients and staff in the hospital and to make space for them to share their fears,” she said.

Typically, families would be with their loved ones morning, noon and night, she explained, but that cannot be the case now. Yesterday, she tended a young man with a young family who was dying.

“His wife and brother came in to say their last goodbyes to him. I facilitated the visit with them, they had 15 minutes to see him and say goodbye as they would never see him again. They were surrounded by people with masks, goggles, hair nets, and no faces to see. This alone put so much fear in them and they too were instructed to wear the full PPE. It is utterly heart-breaking. The reality of the current situation feels inhumane and not what we as carers are used to.”

She added, “To see our patients having to go through this unthinkable ordeal is heart-breaking.”

Tallaght Hospital has ensured that every ward has access to iPads so that patients who are well enough can speak to their families over the internet. If patients are too unwell, the chaplain calls the family after visiting the patient and lets the family know how their loved one is doing. “It gives the chaplain an opportunity to connect in with the family and see how they are doing as well,” she said.

Staff and volunteers in the hospital have crocheted pairs of matching handcrafted hearts. Fr John Kelly is also a chaplain at Tallaght University Hospital and explained that these "Keepsake Hearts" are offered as a keepsake to an individual or a family on the death of their loved one.

“One Keepsake Heart is placed with the remains of their loved one while the matching heart is sent to the bereaved family,” he said.

Fr Kelly explained that: “The work of healthcare chaplains is face-to-face - listening compassionately, connecting immediately and loving unconditionally. COVID-19 has challenged and changed the way we provide this pastoral care. Wherever chaplains are, whether at the bedside or the other end of a video camera, it is about connecting people.”    

“On Good Friday I visited Mary, a patient I had met on many occasions during her treatment for cancer. She recognised my voice behind the protective mask and goggles. Having listened to her fears and sense of isolation I was able to connect her by Zoom to her husband and two sons. This was the last time they were able to see and hear their mother’s voice. After her death the nurse and I placed a wooden cross in her hand as we prayed for her.” 

Another chaplain, Fr Damian O'Reilly, ministers at St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin. He paid tribute to the healthcare professionals and all the staff of the hospital who care for every patient “with great dignity and loving care.”

He said chaplains are restricted from doing their pastoral rounds each day on the wards. Liturgical services are also restricted in that “we celebrate Mass behind locked doors and prayer services in the mortuary are done under the guidelines of the HSE.” Chaplains are also trained in the use of PPE.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin paid tribute to the health service, especially nurses, doctors, public health officials and carers, for their “great commitment” and he thanked priests as they continue to minister to the sick, the troubled and the bereaved.

“In our prayers, we remember those who have come here from abroad and who celebrate Easter far from their home and their traditions. Some of these immigrants are the backbone of our carers and health care workers. We must reach out to them and their families at this time,” Archbishop Martin said.

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