It’s just a normal work day on the wards for Kate Bradford, an Anglicare chaplain at Westmead Hospital. COVID may have turned life upside down for just about everyone, but her job is much the same as it’s always been. 

In many hospitals right now, she says, chaplains don’t have the freedom to visit patients. “Some are being asked to work from home, some are being asked to make their contacts by telephone, whereas we’re really delighted that, at Westmead, in lots of ways our work is pretty similar.

"A lot of our work is pretty similar"

“We’ve got lots of patients who are not COVID patients… so we’re visiting on all of our normal wards. When we do go to patients that have an infectious disease it’s the same precautions as before – although while there was a shortage of PPE [Personal Protective Equipment] we were very reluctant to use the gear if that might mean that medical staff would be short.”

On the wards with COVID patients the chaplains visit if asked, and they also make sure the staff know that they are also available to spend time with the families.

“The ones I’ve seen weren’t COVID positive in the end… it’s treated as an infectious case until [the hospital] is certain it’s not,” Mrs Bradford says.

“For me the really difficult thing has been that the family is not really able to gather around the bedside. That’s the really sad thing about the [COVID] restrictions. Usually if somebody’s dying their close relatives – spouse, children, parents – are usually in the room. Now, one family member can be in the room and the rest are out in the hallway… it’s not as normal.

"The family is not really able to gather around the bedside"

“I’m learning to ask the question, ‘Where is the family? Is the family in the hospital?’ because they’re not in the normal spots… that whole learning curve, it’s new for all of us.”

Virtual chaplaincy

At Wollongong Hospital you’ll often find the Rev Ian Rienits in his office, which is within the hospital chapel. He is able to visit patients, but – as the lone staff chaplain for eight hospitals in the Illawarra-Shoalhaven – he says he has chosen to do physical visits only by referral, otherwise “Who do you visit?” 

Because he is the sole chaplain, he has a big team of volunteers – yet whatever visits the volunteers might make are counted as part of the hour of visiting time each patient is allowed every day. This hour includes family members, and only one person is allowed to visit at a time. 

Like Mr Rienits, the volunteers are normally out on the wards, walking from bed to bed and spending time with patients. The fact that they can’t visit as normal, he says, is “really frustrating for them because they want to come in!   

“The health system is saying if you’ve got any high-risk categories in your life, such as being over 60 or 70 and having an underlying health condition, then don’t come. That wiped out about two-thirds of my volunteers at that point! Then things tightened up more, so they stopped all volunteers – lolly trolley ladies, cancer care volunteers, palliative care volunteers. They need to become like a family visitor.”

One way Mr Rienits is hoping to make more regular contact with patients, families and staff is through technology. He is in the process of trialling a “virtual” chapel – complete with pictures from the real thing – so that, potentially, he or one of his volunteers could be available 12 hours a day on Zoom to whoever pops online.

“The major intent is to have interaction,” he says. “They can have quiet if they want to, or they could even ‘meet’ someone there… eventually I hope to send a letter of invitation to patients.”

"The major intent is to have interaction" 

More opportunities to share the gospel

Things have settled down somewhat at Woodberry Village in Winston Hills, for which chaplain the Rev Nigel Webb is grateful.

There had been a period of “virus lockdown”, he says, but “at the moment we can be with the residential aged care residents, so lots of things are restricted but we can be with them face to face… Because there aren’t the same social connections and gatherings that normally happen, we’re spending a lot more time visiting people one-to-one. We would have done that anyway, but we just do it more!”

"We're spending a lot more time visiting people one-to-one" 

However, the physical distancing rules mean that chapel is restricted to only 20 people.  Undeterred, Mr Webb prepares a service sheet for each Sunday morning, then in the hour before chapel he and other staff visit the rooms of the 30 other church members, give them the service sheet, turn on their TV and tune it to the chapel channel.

He says the pandemic has “opened up many more opportunities to talk about Jesus, particularly with people who wouldn’t normally come to chapel… People ask the questions ‘Where is God in this, and why isn’t he looking after us?’, and that can lead us to talk about how God’s rescue isn’t just from Coronavirus, droughts, floods but also frailty and illness.

“For the Christians their faith is stronger at this time, they can really see that God is looking after them and this country and they’re just really grateful for the circumstances they’re in and the way they’re being looked after at a very difficult time.” 

"God is looking after them and this country" 

It goes beyond illness

In addition to their own illness, many hospital patients are troubled about job and business losses and the health of family members outside the hospital. Their world has completely changed around them, Mrs Bradford says, and “people have just wanted to talk or engage at quite a deep level”.

She mentions staff as a particular matter for prayer, saying “they’re being asked to carry a big burden for the wider community”, and asks that people pray for chaplains to have opportunities to connect with staff and the families of patients to support and encourage them. 

"People have wanted to talk or engage at a deep level" 

When Mr Rienits is at the hospital, he has been making particular time for conversations with staff, saying, “Some of them are very pressured; others just have the general anxiety of the community. But there have been all sorts of changes happening within the hospital as well, so there’s just a general anxiety with that.”

Mr Webb says even some of the Christian staff in the village have been anxious because of all that is happening around them, and he is glad of the opportunity to remind them of the love of Jesus. 

And although the pandemic has created great sadness and suffering, he reflects that it is “also a really helpful time. It’s shaken all sorts of people out of their comfort zone and into thinking about bigger things, more significant things and what’s really important. From a Christian perspective that is exciting, because people aren’t just focused on all the reasons to avoid Jesus, and that’s pretty cool.”

"People aren't just focused on all the reasons to avoid Jesus"