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What is it like being a hospital chaplain during the COVID-19 pandemic?

"I found myself struggling to hold on to hope," said Jessica Bratt Carle, a chaplain at Spectrum Health.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — They don't have the physical scars you often see on first responders or facial welts from wearing a surgical mask for 16 hours. But you can hear it in their voices. It is subtle, but still there just beneath the surface of their calm, reassuring demeanor. It's the sound of exhaustion. 

"I found myself struggling to hold on to hope," said Jessica Bratt Carle, a chaplain at Spectrum Health.  

Their jobs are to provide comfort and spiritual guidance to patients, their families and occasionally the hospital staff. But when the pandemic hit, that ratio flipped. They were now providing more services to their co-workers than ever before. 

"There is a lot that happens in the hospital that the outside community, for better or worse, just can't be aware of, they don't see it. So for us as chaplains trying to simply say, I see you, I see what you are going through, I see the restriction and the limitations and the frustrations," said Erika Dekker, a chaplain at Spectrum Health. "I also see your compassionate care and your steady service and your commitment to really supporting people's well-being under a lot of adversity." 

Just listening is often enough. 

"It's not about what you did or didn't do. Some people who have a lot of risk factors do OK, other people with risk factors don't. Simply the randomness of it, I think that is the largest challenge when people have questioned their faith during this crisis," said Joanna Bailey, Manager of Spiritual Health at Mercy Health. "We don't deny the grief, we can't run away from that because it just compounds it." 

They all say self-care is important, just difficult. It's not a light switch you can turn off at the end of the day. But there is hopeful optimism.

"We have been through a collective trauma as a world, as health care, and it affects people in different ways. To be hopeful and realistic, we are going to be dealing with the effects of this for a long, long time. We are not going to be able to just close the door and be done."

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