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Chaplains find ways to bridge gap caused by quarantine

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At the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic are the doctors and nurses, treating patients with their medical expertise. But there is another person on the front lines: the chaplain. When all the doctors can do is not enough, it is a chaplain who comes to ease the patient.

Father Richard Augustyn and Father John Gaglione are two of those hospital chaplains. Father Augustyn has served as director of Pastoral Care at Buffalo General Hospital for his entire 43-year ministry. Father Gaglione is director of Pastoral Care and heads up the pastoral team of five chaplains at the St. Joseph Campus COVID-19 treatment facility. In the past month their ministry to care for the spiritual needs of patients and offering emotional support to families has not
changed, but the way they carry it out is now very different.

Serving in a hospital, administering the last rites is a big part of their work. “Every effort is made through social media, to try and give them (the families) an opportunity to connect in some way.” Father Gaglione said. Now, they must offer these prayers and ministries in a sterile environment.

“Whenever I go into a COVID room, the nurses gown me up for protection,” Father Augustyn explained. “I don’t take anything into the room but myself. I put the holy oil on my glove and I have the prayer memorized. I’ve been doing this for 43 years now. I didn’t realize I had them that as committed to memory as I do.”

If the patient is alert he introduces himself and explains why he’s there. To maintain the dignity of the patient, he asks if they are comfortable with the rites. So far, no one has refused him. To keep the patient’s family involved, Father Augustyn uses his Facetime or Skype to create a digital connection among family members.

“Because (families) can’t come in, I use my cellphone. I can put my cellphone in a biohazard bag and I can Skype with the family as I do the prayers with the phone in one hand and doing the anointing with the other hand. It gives them a sense of connection as best we can do in a very difficult situation,” Father Augustyn said. “After I’m finished with the prayers, I just allow them to be with their loved one, talking through the phone, giving the phone to the patient. Even if they’re not alert, we believe one of the last senses to go is our ability to hear.
So, I tell them to talk to their loved one. Tell them that they love him or her. So, that is really the new side of ministering to patients with this COVID disease.”

Father Augustyn said he really doesn’t like cellphones in general. He still has a beeper attached to his belt. But, he has learned to adapt as one must in these situations.

Father Augustyn said being able to see loved one last time offers peace.

“There’s a lot of emotion. There’s a sense of relief. A sense of peace for the folks who have seen their loved ones in a dying situation where they have not been able to be in the room, it’s really a way of getting closure for them. At this point in the grieving process … I think we as a health care facility have to say for their protection, for our protection you can’t come in. So this is a very gentle way of bridging that gap and at least allowing them to see their loved one. And for the last time they will see them alive.”

“One of our roles is unfortunately when a patient dies is to talk to the family to offer our consolation and see if there is anything we can do,” Father Gaglione said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shocked citizens around the world. Entire countries have been told to stay at home and avoid interacting with large groups. Even churches have halted public Masses. People who do leave their homes are required to wear masks and are encouraged to wash their hands frequently to avoid spreading the coronavirus, which causes respiratory illness.

“I compare it to what happened when the AIDS epidemic hit, because it was the same sense of being sterile,” Father Augustyn said. “The thing that is the same is the need and desire for human contact. Folks desire to have God between the context of their illness and for their family members to be a part of that. That hasn’t changed. That’s still the same. What’s radically different is how it’s delivered. For an old man using modern technology, it can be a stretch sometimes. But I do see the rewards. I do see the gift in brings in terms of God’s presence in a very difficult situation to families who are normally together and cannot be together. That human touch is still the primary concern.”

When he is not ministering to patients Father Gaglione is working with the staff in difficult situations.

“It’s a ministry of presence to them,” Father Gaglione said. “To be around for them, to know that we’re there if they just want to talk or have a prayer.”
At Buffalo General, Father Augustyn tries to hold everyone together in these unsure times.

“My office is on the first floor, which is a gift. The nurses and the docs and everyone have to pass my doors to come in and go home. I have an open door policy, which I’ve done for 43 years. So, they’re in the habit of stopping in and just saying how their day went and when they come in asking for a prayer,” Father Augustyn said. “A lot of my ministry revolves around the nursing units because the nurses are doing this all the time, every day, all day. So, trying to lift up their spirits and sense where they’re going, what they’re doing, how they’re processing all this stuff. So, I make my rounds with the nursing units just to try to lift up their spirits best we can.”

With iPads being made available, the digital connection created out of necessity looks like it will become a regular part of hospital life.

“It’s changed. We have new ways of approaching people,” Father Augustyn said. “We’ve never had a situation where family members couldn’t come in to be with their dying relatives. Now, with what I’m doing and how I’m doing it, for relatives who are out of state or far away. I’ve gotten used to doing it this way, so we can accommodate people.”

Dan Cappellazzo/Staff Photographer
Buffalo General Medical Center Chaplain Father Richard Augustyn is bridging
the gap for COVID patients who cannot be with their loved ones in their final
hours.

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