Recognizing the Role of Chaplaincy in Healthcare : Perspectives on the COVID-19 Pandemic
By Olamma Otisi (Associate CASC/ACSS Member in Oakville (Ontario South West region)
I had just finished a phone conversation with a client whose mother passed because of COVID-19. Her deepest pain was that her mother died alone in a distant country. Glancing at the number of calls on hold, which had increased to twenty-four, I allowed only two minutes of wrap up time and picked my next call.
“I need someone to talk to,” a woman said, preferring to remain anonymous.
“I am 63-years old, and I live alone. For a year and four months since the pandemic started, there’s no one to talk to,” she said, sobbing.
She went on to say she had endured waves of negative emotions, sometimes weeping through dreary hours.
She lamented the closure of religious gatherings and a lack of connection to her faith community, which had aggravated her situation.
She had lost her sibling to COVID-19. Grief and loneliness are an unpalatable mix.
I spent twenty-five minutes with her. Her heart was so full of self-pity, depression, anxiety, fears, and tears. I listened patiently as she let it all out. When she was done, I got to work by offering emotional care, spiritual care, and other care resources.
“Thanks for being here and for what you do,” she said.
At the end of our call, I broke down and cried. I was not crying for her or the other callers, and it was not a case of transference. Here’s the reason: I too was dealing with loneliness due to separation from family. In September 2015, I came to Canada as an international student without my husband to pursue a masters degree in counselling and spiritual care (chaplaincy). After which, I began working as a community spiritual care practitioner and corporate chaplain.
In October 2018, after following due process, I submitted an application for Permanent Residence of Canada. My application was categorized as a religious work, non-essential, and therefore a non-express entry. My application has been in process since then, and checking my emails for the positive notice of decision from Immigration Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has become a daily ritual.
In March 2020, my husband had planned to come to Canada to visit, but the unforeseen happened. Two days before he could board the flight, Canada shut its borders to non permanent residents due to COVID-19. Canada was shut down; my country of origin was shut down; my husband was shut in and alone, so I cried. Ironically I was caring for clients who suffered deeply from the pandemic induced social isolation and loneliness, while I bore the brunt of same.
We have had three waves of corona virus in the last seventeen months. As a chaplain, I have answered close to 15,000 calls from people longing for spiritual care and support: people who lost their jobs and financial income; front line health care workers who were too scared to go to work the next day; women and men struggling with broken marital relationships. I journeyed with people whose mental health challenges were aggravated by the pandemic uncertainties of addictions, depression, trauma, loneliness, anxiety and more. Some had health issues that were considered not to be an emergency, so they suffered and called daily for healing prayers and spiritual support while they waited for doctors’ appointments and medical procedures.
In May 2021, I stumbled on a news release from IRCC about a new pathway for permanent residence in Canada. Two out of the six categories of workers to benefit from this opportunity are health care workers and essential but non-health care workers. I read through the list, and to my disappointment, there was no mention of chaplains. I scrutinized the list over and over again, and was disheartened to learn that chaplains were not considered. The National Occupation Classification (NOC) 3144, 3414, and 4212 included in the list seemed like they could comprise chaplaincy, but they did not. The list was so meticulously compiled that it seemed like there was no stone left unturned in health and community services except for chaplaincy.
Lessons arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the findings of an international survey by Austen Snowden,https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1542305021992039 suggest that recognition and incorporation of chaplaincy as an essential component of healthcare is still far-flung.
There are research findings and publications on the essential role of spiritual care in patients healing process and mental wellbeing. Some health institutions acknowledge this by engaging chaplain care for their patients, yet, when the chips were down during the COVID pandemic, the opposite was the response. There is no doubt that chaplaincy is beginning to have a voice but it seems as though we chaplains have been mostly speaking to ourselves. My take is that we need an advocacy type of communication from an organized professional body of spiritual care practitioners to effectively highlight the essential role of chaplaincy in healthcare. We need a strong, unified, persistent communication geared towards audiences outside this circle; such as Health care systems administrators and government healthcare policy makers.