One day recently, the chaplain at the Jewish General Hospital recited a prayer for a dying COVID-19 patient on Zoom. As dozens of family members watched from around the world, he stood in the Intensive Care Unit near the intubated woman and used the videoconferencing app to share the ritual with loved ones.
“It was very emotional for the family. There was a lot of crying,” recalls Rabbi Barak Nissim Hetsroni, Chaplain and Spiritual Advisor at the JGH. “People were able to see their mother through to the end, so she didn’t die alone. She died with her family around her.”
The event underscores how chaplains in CIUSSS West-Central Montreal have adapted their practices to continue offering comfort and care during the coronavirus outbreak.
In normal times, they are a reassuring presence at people’s bedside, gently touching the hand of a senior, sitting with a patient for companionship, or providing solace to grieving families in attendance.
None of these gestures is now possible. Chaplains must respect social distancing rules and strict safety protocols—or, in the case of long-term care sites, stay away from residents entirely. In response, they are finding creative solutions.
Rabbi Hetsroni wears protective gear and often stands in hallways or patients’ doorways to carry out his duties. His role is more vital than ever: To limit the spread of the coronavirus, families are not allowed to visit the hospital, often leaving Rabbi Hetsroni as their connection to loved ones in their final moments.
Recently, he answered an urgent request by JGH staff to see a man in his 70s who was dying of COVID-19. The patient’s daughter in Australia was desperate for the rabbi to come to her father’s side. Even though it was the first night of the holiday of Passover, Rabbi Hetsroni left his own family, went to the hospital, and stood at the man’s door. He said a final prayer. “I tried giving him comfort on the night he died,” he says.
The next morning, the rabbi received a phone call from the daughter. “She told me, ‘If I didn’t know someone was there while my father was dying, I could never forgive myself. You brought peace to me and peace to my family.’”
At other times, Rabbi Hetsroni has helped patients through their struggles toward recovery. He brought a man with COVID a binder filled with family photographs and drawings from his grandchildren, along with some matzoh during Passover. The rabbi stayed at a distance by sitting in a chair at the door, yet he felt he fulfilled his role to lift the man’s spirits and give him spiritual support.
The man, who has since been released from hospital, cried in gratitude. “I feel it really gave him strength,” Rabbi Hetsroni says.
Chaplains in some of the CIUSSS’s long-term care sites are also devising ways to provide support to residents while remaining at a distance. At the Saint Andrew Residential Centre, Chaplain Kosta Theofanos has typed out a homily and prayer that was distributed to staff and can be read to residents at appropriate times. He has also begun live-streaming Sunday worship services, as well as weekly Tea & Talk outreach sessions.
“It’s our way of connecting with them, of letting them know they’re cared for and not alone,” Chaplain Theofanos says. “It’s saying that we’re with them throughout the journey, and there are signs of hope.”
He acknowledges that the physical separation imposed by the coronavirus has been difficult. “A chaplain is so bound to the seniors he loves, from the moment their relationship begins to the last goodbye,” he says. “I miss them badly.”
This is why Chaplain Theofanos has sought out alternatives, offering a form of virtual communion with the men and women he has grown to know, and building on a relationship of care and trust. “There are other ways of being present,” he says.
Rabbi Michael Wolff, Chaplain and Spiritual Advisor at Donald Berman Maimonides Geriatric Centre and Donald Berman Jewish Eldercare Centre, also says he finds it frustrating to be apart from residents. Before the outbreak, he would check in with them regularly, visiting some for sit-down conversations and looking in on others who were ill.
“I wish I were immune, so I could walk around and be there,” Rabbi Wolff says.
In the meantime, he has found ways to be useful. He calls family members once a week, advocates on patients’ behalf, and works as a bridge among residents, families and staff.
He also offers to recite a Jewish prayer of healing off-site, believing in its power even if he is not by the residents’ side. “It doesn’t matter where you are,” Rabbi Wolff says, “if you have them in your thoughts spiritually.”