‘It’s really heartbreaking’: The story of COVID-19 through a Sacred Heart chaplain’s eyes

SPOKANE, Wash. – From miracles to heartbreak, healthcare workers see a lot within the walls of a hospital, especially during the last seven months of this pandemic.

While nurses and doctors help people physically battle the coronavirus, one person is there to help with the mental struggle: The chaplain.

Sarah Brody was one of the first chaplains ready to help when four patients came from a cruise ship to Sacred Heart in February. She told 4 News Now she didn’t have many expectation at the time, but she didn’t think the pandemic would go on this long.

When the coronavirus started spreading in Spokane County, she said she had an adrenaline rush. Brody thought there would be a “giant wave” of COVID hospitalizations, but it ended up not overwhelming the hospitals.

“I would say a lot of weariness. I find myself weary, but also engaged and committed. I see that among the staff I work with,” she said.

While the pandemic has affected people for the last six months, medical workers at Sacred Heart have been dealing with it since February when those patients came in.

Since then, it’s been a tiring journey for Brody, and she’s seen the mental and physical impacts on her co-workers, too.

“I’ve stood alongside ICU staff members at the end of a shift where we have all wanted to weep together for what we’ve seen this disease do,” she said.

Some of the hardest moments for Brody were early on, when new information kept coming out about the virus.

“To see a disease process, to see it taking providers by surprise at points and things happening that were unexpected with people with COVID, that was a message to me that this was a really serious disease,” she said.

Not every hospital has a chaplain. Providence is a Catholic health ministry, helping people physically, but also “holistically.”

“We don’t always cure people. But we can help foster a sense of healing, and our chaplains play a really key role of walking alongside people when they’re vulnerable,” said John Kleiderer, the chief mission integration officer for Providence.

Over the years, Brody has been there for many patients in their last few moments. The pandemic has made it even more difficult.

For months during the peak of the pandemic, families were prohibited from visiting. Some families had to say goodbye to their loved ones virtually.

“It’s really heartbreaking,” Brody said. “It’s really heartbreaking to see the family’s heartbreak.”

Chaplains are normally called to a patient’s room if a person is nearing the end of their life or a trauma. Brody says chaplains normally aren’t in the room next to the patient, instead they’re outside of the room praying.

Although she’s not in the room, it still hurts all the same.

“It’s been a very emotionally, trying time. The visitation, the end of life, the isolation, that’s been a moral distress that as chaplains we’ve carried, and I think most of our caregivers have been carrying that weight as well,” she said.

Because of COVID-19, chaplains aren’t allowed to touch patients, family or other caregivers, too. That’s tough for chaplains to abide by as they usually help comfort people through touch.

Although the pandemic left behind many devastated, Brody says she’s happy she at least gets to connect families with their loved ones during this time.

“Part of my role is to help families enter into that space, sort of spiritually, even if we can’t hold that sacred space together during that time, and be lifting up that person together even though it’s across the internet,” she said.

Chaplains are there to help fellow caregivers get through these difficult times, too. In training, Brody says they talk about trying to leave the weight of work at the hospital and not take it home; that hasn’t been as easy the last few months.

Brody tells 4 News Now she’s been seeing a mental health counselor more often during COVID-19, emphasizing that it’s important to take care of yourself.

“When you’re in the midst of working with people who are critically ill or in crisis, it can really help you be all the more grateful for the things you have,” she said. “That’s an attitude I try and reach for in the midst of being exhausted at the end of the day.”

Through all the heartbreak Brody has seen, she said she’s seen good things come from it, too.

“I think we’ve seen the darkest side of disease and illness and we’ve seen a lot of heartache, but we’ve also seen a lot of creativity and perseverance and community,” she said. “Often the yin and the yang go together. When you’re in the middle of the darkest things remember that along with that comes the light. I’ve definitely seen that here.”

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