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Hospital Chaplains Spend Final Moments With COVID-19 Patients: 'I Just Stayed And Held Her Hand'

BOSTON (CBS) -- For Sister Kathleen Gallivan --Kathy to her colleagues at Brigham and Women's Hospital -- connecting with patients in their final moments during the coronavirus outbreak is both difficult and rewarding. As Director of Spiritual Care, her focus is determining what kind of support someone needs.

The gift of her compassion cannot be overstated. "Last week I was called up to a COVID patient who was dying. They wanted a prayer. She was semi-conscious and I just stayed and held her hand for about a half-hour until she died. I was grateful I could be there. Family wasn't present. The doctors and nurses are fabulous. But they are so busy attending to details. I could just be there and hold her hand. And that was meaningful," Kathy said.

BWH's nine chaplains are a source of comfort. Like the rest of us, their lives -- and workdays -- are now very different. Kathy's day begins with a virtual staff meeting via Zoom at 9:30 a.m. There is a chaplain in the hospital 24-7. The morning call provides an update for the staff on what happened overnight. "The whole focus is dealing with this crisis.," she told WBZ-TV.

Unlike some hospital employees, she goes into the hospital each workday. Upon arrival, she is checked for symptoms and receives a mask.

iPads have become especially important tools. "Our way of being with patients, pre-COVID, was always being in the room with them. Right now we're doing some of that but we're also doing a lot of work with iPads. We help set up a link with family so family can talk with loved ones."

But at a time when so few visitors are allowed, chaplains are often called to a patient's room as the sole comfort. "Families are so grateful," Kathy said.

They tell her how much it means that Kathy was there. In acknowledging the gift of her presence, she added, "It's a gift they give back to me by letting me be there. It's both ways."

Suiting up to enter a COVID-19 patient's room takes several minutes which is enough time for Kathy to think, prepare, and hope. "Sometimes I say a little prayer," Kathy said. "Let me be the presence of God for this person."

Nothing has fully prepared her and her colleagues for the coronavirus crisis. But past crises —the Boston Marathon bombing, the Haiti earthquake, and the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary— have trained them to respond to grief on a significant scale. In every trauma, she said, the staff's support for one another is a silver lining. "I see a lot of good in people. People want to help and want to do what they can. That's uplifting. It makes me want to get up the next day and come back in and I'm glad to be here."

In addition to the spiritual comfort she offers patients, Kathy is involved in creating support groups and identifying mental health resources for hospital staff. She called it a privilege to be there for people who are fighting a brave battle.

"The staff needs a lot of support. It's been very wearing on the doctors and nurses and they're fabulous."

She is "super proud" of the nurses, doctors, and "environmental staff", the people who clean the floors and serve food. On a hopeful note, she said, "There will be a tomorrow. It's awful now but it will get better in time. We need to support each other along the way. We are stronger together."

When Kathy took the job at BWH, she planned to spend six months there, but now she is nearing her 18th anniversary at the hospital. She finds comfort and support in friends, family, colleagues, and her faith community.

And she is grateful for "ordinary" moments -- like a recent stem cell blessing.

Kathy said even throughout the isolation of coronavirus, we are building a sense of community. "If we can sustain that down the road that's going to be a wonderful gift that might come out of this horrible experience."

Here is a poem, written about the crisis, by a Franciscan Friar in Ireland, that Kathy has been reading and sharing with her patients:

WATCH: Sister Kathleen Gallivan Reads "Lockdown"

By Richard Hendrick

Capuchin Franciscan Brother (shared on Facebook 3/13/2020)


Yes there is fear.
Yes there is isolation.
Yes there is panic buying.
Yes there is sickness.
Yes there is even death.
They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise
You can hear the birds again.
They say that after just a few weeks of quiet
The sky is no longer thick with fumes
But blue and grey and clear.
They say that in the streets of Assisi
People are singing to each other
across the empty squares,
keeping their windows open
so that those who are alone
may hear the sounds of family around them.
They say that a hotel in the West of Ireland
Is offering free meals and delivery to the housebound.
Today a young woman I know
is busy spreading fliers with her number
through the neighbourhood
So that the elders may have someone to call on.
Today Churches, Synagogues, Mosques and Temples
are preparing to welcome
and shelter the homeless, the sick, the weary
All over the world people are slowing down and reflecting
All over the world people are looking at their neighbours in a new way
All over the world people are waking up to a new reality
To how big we really are.
To how little control we really have.
To what really matters.
To Love.
So we pray and we remember that
Yes there is fear.
But there does not have to be hate.
Yes there is isolation.
But there does not have to be loneliness.
Yes there is panic buying.
But there does not have to be meanness.
Yes there is sickness.
But there does not have to be disease of the soul
Yes there is even death.
But there can always be a rebirth of love.
Wake to the choices you make as to how to live now.
Today, breathe.
Listen, behind the factory noises of your panic
The birds are singing again
The sky is clearing,
Spring is coming,
And we are always encompassed by Love.
Open the windows of your soul
And though you may not be able
to touch across the empty square,

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