How a Hospital Chaplain Brings Comfort to Patients, Without Hugs or Holding Hands

Sister Donna Maria Moses is a senior chaplain at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. She and her colleagues minister to dying COVID-19 patients by phone. (Courtesy of Sister Donna Maria Moses)

Sister Donna Maria Moses, a Catholic nun and hospital chaplain who has seen the coronavirus pandemic firsthand, has adapted her ministry to provide solace to the dying over the phone, instead of the usual in-person visits.

She manages three staff chaplains and dozens of volunteers from many faiths at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, one of the first hospitals to treat coronavirus patients returning from China and ill-fated cruise trips.

The chaplains can’t visit patients, or even the units where COVID-19 patients are being treated. Moses is no longer able to hug or hold hands with someone who’s sick or with grieving family members, but she’s determined to provide other kinds of spiritual and emotional comfort.

“Most of our work is listening,” she said. “Asking an open-ended question and continuing to ask questions until we have a sense of what their real prayer is. Are they afraid? Are they grief stricken? Are they angry? Are they in despair? So we can offer the appropriate kind of prayer for them,” Moses added.

Adapting Hospital Ministry to Coronavirus Conditions

At first, she and her colleagues didn’t realize how contagious and dangerous it was to visit COVID-19 patients in their rooms, or how challenging it would be to establish an emotional connection with patients in distress when chaplains must hide behind protective masks, gowns and shields.

The desk of Sister Donna Maria Moses —  a senior chaplain at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. (Courtesy of Sr. Donna Maria Moses)

“We don’t have to touch. Sometimes eye contact is enough," Moses said. "We use a vocal tone that conveys peace and acceptance and compassion." But with layers of protective gear, it hasn't felt the same for her or the people she strives to support.

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She suited up to visit two patients one day in early March. But the N95 mask muffled her voice and obscured her eyes.

“That's not comforting to see another person in all that gear,” Moses said. “It’s not anything anyone would want to see in their last moment on earth. You could see there’s a person, but you can’t see that you’re looking at them in a loving way."

Last Rites in the Time of COVID-19

In early March, Moses ended the volunteer program to protect hospital patients from exposure to outside visitors, and to protect volunteers from the virus. Now they call patients by phone — a mixture of cellphones, hospital phones and Zoom calls.

For Catholics like her, the last rites for the dying are more than just a prayer. There are three sacraments performed by a priest. She and her colleagues had to make small adjustments at first, like dispensing holy oil individually for each patient, leaving their Bibles at home and printing verses out because anything brought into the room of a contagious patient had to stay there.

Sister Donna Maria Moses is a senior chaplain at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. She and her colleagues minister to dying COVID-19 patients by phone. (Courtesy of Sister Donna Maria Moses)

Eventually, once it was clear that the virus could be transmitted asymptomatically, Moses decided that even staff clergy shouldn’t visit patient rooms anymore, even with the same protective equipment that nurses use.

"It was just about that time that Pope Francis came out with a Plenary Indulgence," an order absolving Catholics of their usual duties to perform the required sacraments during the pandemic, she said. "He’s in Italy so he could see it firsthand. There weren’t enough priests to get to everyone (who was dying). And if they did, and the person was still alive and conscious enough to pray, the sight of a priest in all that gear — it’s distressing."

Protecting Elderly Clergy and Supporting Nurses

Many Catholic clergy live together in rectories or convents, so they risk infecting their entire communities. They also tend to be older and therefore are at higher risk. Moses lives with three other nuns at a parish house in Los Altos. The 64-year-old nun has decided to skip events at the Fremont mother house of her order, the Dominican Sisters of Mission San Jose.

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Moses and her staff have turned their attention to the spiritual and emotional needs of medical workers at the public hospital. "Oftentimes, the entire unit is experiencing spiritual and emotional distress," Moses said. "The nursing supervisor calls a debrief. We work with a therapist and open it up – it's really just venting. It’s good to talk so they’re not bringing it home and dumping that stress on their families,” she said. Moses added that since many families are sheltering in place, relationships at home can be particularly strained.

Moses said the phone visits are going well. Many of her previous volunteers have signed up. They reflect the South Bay’s demographics with people who speak Spanish, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Punjabi, with a diversity of faiths and spiritual practices.

How to Celebrate Holy Week During Physical Isolation

As Moses planned for Holy Week, the holiest time of the year for Christians, she said she won’t miss Mass on Easter Sunday because she has a wealth of online services to participate in. She can choose from Masses at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, at the Vatican in Rome, or join the other nuns in her parish community who plan to tune in to Masses in their home countries of the Philippines or Vietnam.

Moses said she takes comfort in reading from the Bible daily because the text takes on new meaning in a crisis.

"Almost daily I'll find something in the Scripture," she said. This week she found an encouraging verse from Isaiah: "The Lord God has given me a well trained tongue so that I may know how to speak a word to the weary."

"That's really what we're trying to do in this phone ministry. We're asking God to give us the words, to speak to the weary,” she said.

She’s also recited a version of the Jewish Passover Seder with her fellow nuns this week, and reflected on how the whole world is praying for this plague to ‘pass them over.’

"In the midst of the signs of new hope of Spring, there's bitterness and sorrow and tears,” she said. “And on Good Friday, as Jesus is crying, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ We have so many people isolated at home or in a hospital bed alone, probably praying that prayer with their very last breath."

She insists that there is hope: "The one truth is we are not alone. This has united us in a way unlike anything in our lifetime. Just look at all the acts of kindness,” she said. "This will pass. We will get a vaccine... and we’ll be better prepared next time."