NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – A pandemic raged, retreated and returned with a vengeance, but the eight chaplains on staff at Saint Peter’s University Hospital tended to the spiritual well-being of hundreds of patients as the medical staff cared for their physical health.
The members of the Pastoral Care Department were there with prayers over the past 10 months, even when they weren’t allowed to enter rooms of patients battling COVID-19.
And when they were able to go about their rounds, they also brought words of encouragement or simply a peaceful presence to patients and staff.
Although the staff at Saint Peter’s continually carries out its Catholic mission, patients of all religions and levels of devotion have their spiritual needs tended to by the staff members.
Their work has been especially important over the past few weeks, as many COVID-19 patients – and those facing other health issues - spent the holidays without their families by their sides.
“Sometimes you don’t need the words,” said Father Peter Suhaka. “People will look at you, their eyes will tear. Maybe they can’t talk. Whether they want to talk about God, it doesn’t matter, Christ’s presence is constant. And that’s been the most humbling and the greatest blessing of this time, spiritually, to know that you can be the instrument that God has called you to be for other people.”
A blessing, to be sure. But challenging, no doubt, considering that it wasn’t clear what would happen to the COVID-19 patients from day to day, from room to room, from moment to moment.
Chaplain Adriana Mastandino remembers checking on a woman who had just arrived in the ICU. The next day she was on a respirator. On the third day, she was gone.
Deacon Vincent Brigande said the patients would often become contemplative as they sat in their beds, too weak to do anything but remember their lives before contracting the virus.
“I think patients had a deeper appreciation for where they’ve been, what their life was,” Brigande said. “One patient had difficulty breathing and was on high-flow oxygen. He said to me, ‘I really didn’t know how good I had it until I got this disease.’”
Mastandino said she could see the stress and fatigue in the eyes of the doctors, nurses and other health care heroes as a result of the challenges brought about by the pandemic. The way she puts it, she could see the light in their eyes grow dimmer from exhaustion, yet she could also see the resiliency, hopefulness and grace by which they carried on.
She said sometimes there were no words – it was a matter of maintaining hope so others wouldn’t lose theirs.
“Just for us being there, that sort of made them feel like it was going to be OK,” she said. “And literally walking through the hospital, being like a pillar of light and keeping the peace, that peace that surpasses understanding.”
Father Suhaka said there were many moments where he saw what he calls “the amazing giftedness of people.” Like when members of the medical staff would ask him to say a prayer for them. Like when someone struggling locked eyes with him and they began to cry. Like when someone who just came out of a coma didn’t want to let go of his hand.
“And this is where we come back to that strong foundation, and we build again,” he said. “And that’s the human spirit. That is the human spirit and the spirit given by God.”