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Called to Comfort: How Chaplain Residents Are Walking Through COVID-19 With Patients and Staff

By Mary Beth Schweigert


In the chaos created by the coronavirus, a hospital may seem like one of the last places where a healthy person would want to spend time. However, chaplain resident Scott Sprunger believes it’s exactly where he’s meant to be.

“In many ways, the chaplain work I do and where I do it is a real gift, even now,” said Sprunger, a Clinical Pastoral Education resident at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health. “While most people have to remain in their homes, I get to go to work every day in a health-care setting and be surrounded by people who are living out their calling to care for others.”

Before COVID-19, an LG Health chaplain resident’s typical day would include spending time at a patient’s bedside at Lancaster General Hospital, holding their hand, sharing a hug, sitting in their room, listening and offering counsel to them and visiting family members.

None of that can happen now, as the coronavirus has presented chaplains with challenges and restrictions like they’ve never seen. These include stricter hospital visitation policies, requirements to wear face masks and other personal protective equipment, and practicing social distancing.

For Theresa Platt, Sprunger’s fellow LG Health chaplain resident, knowing that patients are separated from their families at this time is especially difficult.

“I’m used to going into patients’ rooms and meeting the family,” she said. “Lancaster General Hospital is usually a bustling place. Now it’s much quieter, with fewer people. It’s hard, but we’re taking the most careful measures to respond to this pandemic in the most caring and compassionate way possible.”

So that families and patients don’t feel alone, Sprunger and other chaplains are finding ways to innovate. He spends some of his time now teaching family members and patients how to use FaceTime or other technologies to stay connected to their loved ones.

As the virus continues to spread, the need for chaplains to address heightened worry and anxiety grows. And while clinical chaplains are familiar with working in high-stress situations, this is new territory.

“Chaplain residents are being tested by something unprecedented very early in their careers,” said Keith Espenshade, Clinical Pastoral Education Supervisor, who manages LG Health’s four full-time chaplain residents and five chaplain interns. “Learning how to counsel from a doorway or connect with individuals while wearing personal protective equipment … is difficult for even the most experienced chaplains.”

So he reminds the residents and interns how important they are at this time, and encourages them to draw from their education and mental health-related training, including the need to practice self-reflection.

He teaches these students to first be aware of what’s going on inside of themselves and recognize their own anxiety and discomfort, so they can better recognize those feelings in others. He believes it’s a skill students need to lean on heavily in responding to this crisis. And it’s one they’re putting into practice to counsel not only patients and families but also staff during this especially trying time.

“I’m doing a lot more caring for the staff right now,” Sprunger said. “What are normally brief check-ins are turning into more lengthy conversations. Their biggest worries seem to be about accidentally bringing it home to a family member and also how the pandemic might play out in this area. Everyone who works at LG Health has a strong concern for the people of this community, especially for the most vulnerable.”

For now, the chaplain residents say the best things they can do for staff are to listen to their stories, honor their anxiety and nervousness, and offer presence, hope and comfort. They also remind staff to care for themselves, something they themselves try to practice.

“There will be many lessons learned from this experience, but it’s already taught me the need for self-care,” Platt said. “Lately I spend a lot of time journaling, exercising, talking to people I’m close to, and I try to get enough sleep.”

Under normal circumstances, Sprunger finds joy in hosting dinners for family and friends. With that off the table for the foreseeable future, he’s using this time to experiment in the kitchen, learning a new dish every day and looking forward to the time when he can again share his culinary creations with others.

Amidst the uncertainty, both Sprunger and Platt are certain of one thing: This is an experience they will talk about for the rest of their lives.

“This is going to be a pretty defining moment,” Platt said. “As difficult as things are right now, I wouldn’t change being here at all. And I still have a lot of hope for what lies ahead.”

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