Mary Salois remembers the memo she got from the Mercy Hospital system. It was March 2020. Most elective surgeries had been canceled as the Washington hospital’s staff began treating COVID-19 patients — then a disease with many unknowns. Salois, who has been in chaplaincy for 34 years and is manager of mission and pastoral services at Mercy, and her staff of chaplains were asked to expand their priorities.

“At the beginning, because we quit doing elective procedures, business was way down, so Mercy asked us to emphasize care to our co-workers,” Salois said. “COVID care has been overwhelming, so we still really emphasize co-worker care. Supporting them is a big part of our job.”

The chaplains are working harder hours, although not necessarily longer ones, said the Rev. Brian Hall, who has been a pastor for 28 years and a chaplain for three, so it is important to them to provide spiritual care for the nurses and doctors who are. 

“I was on the floor and saw one of the nurses filling out a death report,” Hall remembered. “She looked very tired and I asked her, ‘How are you doing?’ She said, ‘I feel like I’m learning how to fill these reports out blindfolded. It’s just second nature now.’ ”

Salois and Hall are two of four full-time chaplains at Mercy Hospital Washington, each of a different religious denomination. The hospital also works with four area Catholic Diocese priests who are volunteer chaplains, including the Rev. Jim Theby of Our Lady of Lourdes.

When COVID-19 patients were first admitted in March, Theby was the only non-nurse or non-doctor allowed into their rooms. He never officially volunteered for the role, but after visiting several of the patients, he told the staff that if he was exposed once he might as well be the one to be exposed again. He visits two to 10 patients per shift, including some COVID-19 patients, and frequently is called in emergencies.

“The first time I went into a COVID room, I was nervous. We didn’t know how it worked,” Theby said. “Now I feel like I’m probably safer in there than a lot of other places. But with all the PPE (personal protective equipment) we wear, I understand why we need it and would never advocate we don’t use it, but I’ve also had the thought of, ‘These people are human beings. They’re children of God. They’re in a scary time, and here we’re coming in like stormtroopers, almost as if (the patients) are radioactive. I completely believe we need to wear that stuff, but I can’t help but think what it’s like to be in their shoes.’ ”

Staff chaplains do their ministry with COVID-19 patients virtually via screens in each room or by phone with the patients’ families, which Hall said has helped them “learn to smile through their eyes.” Hall also has used the screens to let family members who aren’t allowed in the rooms see their loved one, which for Mercy COVID-19 patients is anyone under 16. 

“I met a family who had a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old who wanted to see Grandma because she was a COVID patient,” Hall said. “So we went to the chapel, and I had my computer and was able to let them see their grandmother. They were really moved by that.”

The chaplains said another challenge of COVID-19 is caring for patients with other ailments who feel isolated by visitor restrictions.

“To me, one of the big tragedies of the pandemic is that it’s isolated people in times when they need people most,” Theby said. “Anytime someone is sick, they’re suffering. They need spiritual care and just human contact. The doctors and nurses and cleaning staff in particular have become that human contact for a lot of people.”

The chaplains are quick to point out that their increased workloads and emotional toll pale in comparison to doctors and nurses. But they acknowledge the powerful role patients and families say they play.

“You get welcomed into very sacred places when people are in a health care crisis,” Salois said. “We’ve had chaplains get letters (saying) that they brought God’s presence with them. That does a lot to lighten it for us.”

“Days when the sun is out, you’d be amazed how much you hear all over this organization about how helpful that is,” Hall said. “We used to take it for granted, but it’s huge to us now because we need every lift we can get.”