COVID-19: SSM chaplain offers support through pandemic shakeup

Vicky O. Misa
At SSM Health St. Anthony-Shawnee hospital notes of encouragement line the windows inside — sent to offer support and encourage local health care workers during the COVID-19 crisis.

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The halls of SSM Health St. Anthony-Shawnee hospital are sparse, limited to workers and only a few screened visitors as the threat of COVID-19 continues to keep the community on guard.

The past several weeks have seen many changes, at times drastic and daily in response to the pandemic — especially for those in the health care field.

It's painfully clear to all that times have changed.

During such an unprecedented and unusually stressful time, those families and loved ones who would typically serve as a source of support and comfort are being kept beyond arm's length for the sake of safety.

But, there to bridge that gaping chasm is the Rev. Bill Simpson, hospital chaplain.

Though patient volume has been down at the hospital, he said doctors, nurses and other staff have been battling an onslaught of new and different stressers.

He said much of what staff has faced has related more to the constant changes/updates in protocol, as the country has struggled to get a grasp on how to handle the crisis. Those changes, early on, were often daily — even hourly, he said.

Also, at first everyone seemed to be holding their breath — waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Eventually, it has proven that the hospital was prepared for more than what actually occurred; though the crisis is not over yet.

There are still a myriad of issues to cope with and fewer in place to attend to them.

Usually armed with 15 volunteers (now forced to take a back seat for the time-being) Simpson is feeling the blow of their absence in serving the needs of others.

“We are really missing the furloughed and gone,” he said. “It's left a big hole — but it is temporary.”

He said even though things are dialed back for now, SSM has really stepped up, taking care of its people.

“There are a number of nurses with young children who aren't staying at home, so they can protect their loved ones,” he said. “They are really stepping up.”

Simpson said he's definitely been spending more time checking on hospital staff.

“My time is limited, but by investing in the lives of staff, I'm also investing in the lives of their patients,” he said.

The things staff and patients are dealing with right now are different than anyone could've imagined, he said.

“I don't think anyone was prepared for this (level of event),” he said.

With family visitation severely limited, it's made already difficult situations even harder.

“It's really compounded,” he said.

But with that new experience has come great opportunity, he explained.

He said patients have been more receptive.

“It's been very fulfilling, even the hard parts,” he said. “I've been able to take part in some really meaningful things.”

Simpson said he had an opportunity to take a 91 year-old patient a birthday video made by his grandchildren.

He also was afforded the chance to baptize an ICU patient.

In Simpson's efforts to make sure no one is left to cope alone, in that quest he is not alone either.

“The hospital has always had staff who minister to patients,” he said. “This is foundational for us as a faith-based hospital.”

Notes of encouragement also line the windows of an inner courtyard at the heart of the health care facility.

It's always there for staff to look at, he said.

There are some especially touching words, Simpson noted.

Another show of support came from a local congregation that transformed an unused waiting room into an R-and-R, providing refreshments and supplies for those seeking a quiet place to decompress for a few minutes.

Also, a cart routinely makes its way around the building to serve its occupants with small uplifting offerings like snacks and notes of encouragement.

“It feels like we're beginning to creep up on a new normal,” he said.

Simpson said he hopes things don't go back to the way they were before.

“Why waste what we've been through just to go back to the old way?” he said. “Why not come out better than we were?”