Fr. Freddy Ocun, director of spiritual care at Providence St. Vincent, now does more of his ministry over the telephone than before the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy Providence St. Vincent)
Fr. Freddy Ocun, director of spiritual care at Providence St. Vincent, now does more of his ministry over the telephone than before the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy Providence St. Vincent)

Patty Douglass, a chaplain at Providence Milwaukie Hospital, hurries when she is called to the bedside of the dying. 

COVID-19 protocols, however, slowed her recently as she put on a gown and gloves.

“When I got in, a nurse was already there, holding the person’s hand, offering a holy presence,” she said. “That was a moving experience. I was witnessing compassion and grace.”

Douglass, a member of St. James Parish in McMinnville, said that’s been a common experience in recent weeks. “The reason I love working here is that it’s a vocation. People are devoted to ministry and mission.”

She regularly ponders St. Teresa of Avila’s words these days: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours, no feet but yours.”

She observes that presence in the staff’s continuing work now. She includes those who clean rooms, those who launder and those who make food.

“There’s a ton of heroes here,” she said.

Douglass has worked as a hospital chaplain for five years, three at Providence Milwaukie. Before becoming a hospital chaplain she was a pastoral associate for 20 years, including at St. James and St. Vincent de Paul in Salem. The biggest differences between work at a Catholic parish and work at a Catholic hospital, she said, are the obvious ones: at the hospital she ministers to all, not just Catholics, and her ministry focus is usually giving spiritual support to the sick, their families, and the staff.

COVID-19 has complicated her work.

In her ministry to patients, Douglass must now decide when to use some of the hospital’s limited personal protective equipment. “We’re trying to keep people as unexposed as possible,” Douglass said.

Like chaplains across the country, those in Oregon’s Catholic hospitals are innovating, making do with telephones and iPads, standing outside rooms to pray for a patient, looking through windows to make the sign of the cross and encouraging patients to make spiritual communion.

Their ministry, however, at its core is unchanged.

“You find the patient is anxious about his life,” said Father Joseph Echeme, a chaplain at PeaceHealth RiverBend Medical Center in Springfield. “They see you as a reassuring person. They need us to just listen to them, even though we can’t offer solutions.”

The difference is that the chaplains are more often ministering from a distance.

“We’re doing ‘e-chaplaincy,’ being tele-chaplains now at times,” said Father Augustine Manyama, a chaplain at Providence Portland Medical Center and also a priest of the Apostles of Jesus. “We make video calls, sometimes visiting with family members who are out of state. We reassure them, letting them know that we are here.”

That includes people of all faiths, and people without a faith. “This sickness attacks everybody, including those who are against faith,” said Father Manyama. “Being without faith isn’t being without emotional feelings.”

Patients with COVID-19 at PeaceHealth RiverBend also use iPads in what they’re calling a virtual visitors program.

The hospital’s chapel is still open, especially for staff, said Father Echeme, as is the smaller room next door, used for confessions, meditation and prayer. The tabernacle still holds the consecrated host, the icon of Mary still looks down upon those kneeling in prayer, and candles still flicker. And the chaplains still reach out to those needing to share their fears.

“The small things matter,” said Apostle of Jesus Father Freddy Ocun, director of spiritual care at Providence St. Vincent. “People need to be told that they are not alone.”

All the sacraments are available at their hospitals, said both Fathers Echeme and Ocun, and there are chaplains on the hospitals’ campuses around the clock.

Most of the chaplains say they’ve been asked about God’s presence and purpose in the pandemic.

“I hear ‘Where is God?’ almost every day,” said Father Manyama. “The point is not to give them answers, but to provide the listening ear, so that they can express their frustrations,” he said. “The work of a chaplain is not to fix things but to provide a supportive presence.”

“I wish there were simple answers,” Father Ocun said. “But I know that God does not leave us alone, especially at difficult times.”

Father Echeme said reassurance is needed not only for patients and their families but also for the hospital’s staff. “Because of COVID, our tension at the hospital is higher,” he explained. “We’re there to tell them everything will be OK. God will protect and guide them.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has not overwhelmed hospitals in Oregon as it has in New York City, New Orleans, or Detroit, but it has brought suffering patients, and risk and anxiety to caregivers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that no tally is being kept nationally of how many health care workers have tested positive for COVID-19 or how many have died. However, in the few states tracking occupations, health care workers comprise about 11% of infections.

“You’re scared for your life and other people’s lives,” said Father Echeme, who remembered thinking that everything was under control. “We never expected this.”

The chaplains can sit with staff in the hospitals’ chapels and pray with them. “Much of our work is caring for our caregivers,” said Father Ocun.

He recalled the phone call he made to a nurse recently, to check in with her about how she was doing.

“She broke out crying,” said Father Ocun.

She told him how emotionally overwhelmed she had been feeling and told him his call meant a lot to her. “Even now, thinking about that call — how deeply I was touched,” said Father Ocun.

Father Manyama believes that the staff he works with don’t see their work as a job, but rather a vocation, a calling. “And they are in harm’s way. They are worried that the next time it could be them or one of their family members.”

He has heard about how careful staff members are — shedding their clothes in their garage, for instance, washing those clothes and showering themselves at the end of every shift. “It’s a lot of extra work in addition to the worry,” he said.

Father Frederick Nkwasibwe, also an Apostle of Jesus priest who is a chaplain at Portland Providence Medical Center, said he too has been inspired by the love he sees made visible as the hospital staff take on becoming mourners and counselors, in addition to their already demanding work.

In response, he believes chaplains have become more emotionally supportive to doctors, nurses and other staff. “You present your witness, the love of Christ in a difficult moment,” he said.

“This virus tests our faith and our love,” Father Nkwasibwe said. “It makes us ask, ‘How can I become available?’ It translates theoretical love into practical love.”

He sees these days as challenging and testing, but also a time of growth.

That shows in the solidarity and emotional connectedness among the staff. “Everyone is asking how they can support one another.”

Father Ocun has seen even the broader community come together, with passers-by sometimes telling the hospital staff, “You are our heroes.”

“So yes, God is really present at this time,” he said.

Father Ocun, the other chaplains and the rest of Providence employees felt that support from other front line responders April 16 when police and firefighters paraded in their vehicles at Providence St. Vincent and Providence Portland to salute the hospitals’ staffs.

“I was touched,” Father Nkwasibwe said. “Everybody felt, ‘We are together in this.’”