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Sacred Heart hospital chaplain offers patients, staff ‘life-giving moments’ in hard and hectic circumstances

Joel Alsworth is a chaplain at Providence Sacred Heart Hospital. He stops in the chapel each morning to say a prayer before making his rounds. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Joel Alsworth arrives at work early every morning, walks into the chapel at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, takes a deep breath and says a prayer.

“That’s what I do to get ready,” Alsworth said.

Alsworth is a chaplain based at Sacred Heart who cares not only for patients and their families but also for the hospital staff who keep the whole thing running.

With the coronavirus pandemic strictly limiting visitation for families and causing medical personnel to work overtime, chaplains are tasked with supporting the hospital community in its moment of need.

“We carry very fancy pagers,” Alsworth said with a chuckle. “A lot of the time, especially now in this season, it’s going where staff are calling us.”

Before the pandemic, Alsworth would get paged to the emergency room for an incoming trauma and ensure the patient’s family knew their loved one was at the hospital and would help connect them.

He also completed rounds in the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, to support families when a new baby was preparing to undergo a procedure.

At the start of the pandemic, Alsworth said the sense in the hospital was one of fear of the unknown.

“Especially initially, just the unknown was a huge, a very substantial weight that you could just sense in the hospital,”Alsworth said. “There was a lot of unknown, and it was an anxious place.”

Chaplains worked to support families during that time by educating people about why certain procedures were in place and what the risks were, said Kay Gorka, director of spiritual care for Providence health care in Spokane.

Much of Alsworth’s job has now shifted to facilitating video chats between families and patients.

Some visitors are allowed in the hospital, such as parents or guardians in the pediatric ward or a limited number of family members when a patient is actively dying, but those exceptions are few.

Normally, an entire family would be able to share that time before death with their loved one, so Alsworth and his fellow chaplains have been facilitating video chats to link entire families.

“It’s definitely not perfect, but it’s still a contact,” Gorka said. “Having the technology to connect is really better than nothing.”

The grieving process is altered when it’s not possible for family and friends to be together, Gorka acknowledged.

“When you are in grief, one of our human responses to that is to gather,” Gorka said. “And that’s true across religion, across countries. I mean, you hear it worldwide.”

At Providence, she said, the care team has been “very responsive to that.” Even if it’s just telling a family that their loved one wasn’t alone when they died, it’s something, Gorka said.

And she was speaking from personal experience.

Gorka had a family member who recently died, and she was “thankful that my person in my family didn’t die alone.”

“I was thankful that the doctors and nurses were there,” Gorka said.

Providence’s spiritual care department includes four chaplains at Holy Family and 12 at Sacred Heart who provide care 24/7.

Gorka has been a chaplain for nearly two decades. She came to Spokane in 2005 after leaving her first job in New Orleans.

“The day my job was supposed to start, Hurricane Katrina hit,” Gorka said.

Not long after the dust settled, she packed up and moved to Spokane. Being the director of spiritual care, Gorka helps oversee programs that fit into what she calls Providence’s “whole person care: mind, body, spirit” philosophy.

“We care for people with religion, no matter what it is, or people without religion, recognizing religion is just an expression of people’s spirituality,” Gorka said.

Anytime a chaplain connects someone with their meaning and purpose or helps them find a source of connection outside of themselves, they’re achieving their goals, Gorka said.

“We’ve all had this sort of human experience to be in a deeper relationship,” Gorka said. “How do we foster that for our patients and the people that work here?”

That question is something that Gorka asks her chaplains frequently, and it has taken some ingenuity to answer it during the age of COVID.

In some hospital units, Alsworth has created invitations for staff “to pause, to listen, to breathe” and posted them so they see those invitations throughout their busy day.

The reflections are similar to Alsworth’s own morning prayers, during which he pauses to collect himself and process things as he moves through the day.

“It’s part of the rhythm of my life,” Alsworth said.

Helping others find that rhythm has been a huge part of Alsworth’s work.

“We can have what I call ‘life-giving moments’ that can be really brief,” Alsworth said.

One way to do it, he explained, is to stop, take two deep breaths, then take another deep breath with thanks.

Medical providers can be wearing a mask for 12 hours straight, so taking a couple minutes to step outside and get some fresh air can be a great way to recharge, Alsworth said.

“Pause and break your usual rhythm, but do it purposefully,” Alsworth said.

Hospital chaplains also have been setting aside extra time to spend on units with staff.

“We’ve been very purposeful with (Gorka’s) direction to really be present on units with staff,” Alsworth said. “Just asking, ‘How are you doing?’ And being observant.”

They also offer a three- to five-minute prayer or reflection each morning that staff can call into to start their day.

Chaplains work with the same staff “day in and day out,” but that doesn’t mean that Alsworth knows them well. He said he always tries to remember that “everybody is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

By taking time to stop and connect with people in the moment, Alsworth said it can be a rare chance for them to relax and reduce stress.

“If I don’t stop and see and engage with people, it doesn’t give them space to share their story,” Alsworth said.

Since chaplains can’t be everywhere at once, the reflection cards throughout the hospital are a way to remind people to take a moment to gather themselves and perhaps to have a moment of spiritual connection, Alsworth said.

While the pandemic is on the forefront of everyone’s mind, Gorka said it’s important for her and the chaplains she supervises to remember people have other stresses and reasons for being at the hospital.

“The coronavirus isn’t the only thing going on in people’s lives,” Gorka said. “Any given day, people have different things on their minds and hearts.”

Everyone has been working together to provide “safe care” to patients during this strenuous time, Gorka said.

“It’s a challenge, and it’s a challenge to our community,” Gorka said. “That has been a great gift to us as chaplains, to bear witness to that.”