Barry Pitegoff (’71) is a staff chaplain at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York. He recently shared his insights with us regarding how COVID-19 has impacted his daily job and his hospital.
As a professional hospital chaplain, how has COVID-19 most impacted you professionally?
For now, two of the major tools in my chaplain’s toolbox have been placed on “pause.” These are non-verbal communication and touch. Masks, full PPE, and social distancing make it impossible to show my smiles and facial expressions which communicate “tell me more.” We are used to shaking hands, a touch on the shoulder, holding hands, and a hug with the suddenly bereaved.
Second, my everyday work balance has also shifted. It has gone from a mixture of happy occasions and sad occasions, to a greater emphasis on end-of-life care and staff support.
Third is the increased sadness of so many people dying alone. Most, but not all, patients do not want to die alone. We facilitate “good bye” visits for actively-dying patients, COVID-19 affected or not, with the chaplain present. I pray for the day when these rules will be relaxed again. These visits touch me very strongly.
What are things like now compared to when the pandemic first hit New York?
My primary hospital is about 70 miles northwest of New York City. Thankfully, we have been spared much of the intensity that has garnered publicity for the NYC hospitals, especially those where I trained. We have been just as affected by the change in protocols, increasing beds, transitioning units, adding a testing tent outside, preparing a variety of PPE, stretching our staff, and enjoying the overwhelming support of our community that has added appreciation signs near our campus, sent in meals, and sent a socially-distanced salute parade for us through our parking lot. I also facilitate more nationwide video conferences of hospital chaplains for NAJC, the Association of Jewish Chaplains, on whose board I am proud to serve. I share more reflections through a wonderful web site, JewishSacredAging.com
I feel like we are in the second movement of a three-part symphony, like the early classical sonatas or Stravinsky more recently. We have a cadence and control now. It is exciting to participate in cheering lines as our COVID-19 survivors are escorted out of the hospital.
Has your role allowed you to see firsthand how the doctors and other medical staff have responded to the pandemic? What has most impressed you about the job they have done?
Professional hospital chaplains have always responded to all pages and all codes. We are very interdisciplinary. We all work as a team. We see everything, and we feel everything. I am very impressed by how much closer all of our disciplines have gotten in the hospital. There is a genuine increase in how much we care about each other, how much we interact with each other, how much we respect each other, and how much we need each other. I pray that this will be one of the permanent changes we will continue to embrace after the COVID-19 crisis subsides.
During this pandemic, what has a typical day been like for you?
Your question is a beautiful oxymoron. There has never been a “typical day” for a hospital chaplain. A Yiddish proverb teaches, “Man plans and G-D laughs.” Chaplaincy is a 24/7 hospital service. A standard day’s schedule is 7 am – 3 pm in the hospital, followed by 3 pm – 7 am the next day “on call.” The phone rings more often now in the middle of the night. Sometimes, I triage it on the phone, sometimes I need to call a priest-chaplain, sometimes I get back on the highway at 2 am for the 30-minute drive to return to the hospital. Per New York State Police advice, I wear my hospital badge in the car to easily identify me as an essential first responder.
The med-surg nurses gather for a shift-change report at 7:05am. Since the COVID-19 crisis began, I have been invited to open each shift-change meeting with a prayer. This has been recognized and adapted by my peers as a “best practice.” Because many families cannot be with their loved ones when they die, we chaplains are making more follow-up telephone bereavement calls. This is another protocol we will probably keep after the pandemic subsides. In these ways, the pandemic has opened our eyes to ways we can serve better.
What do you anticipate being some of the greatest challenges facing us as we move forward through this pandemic?
I think the greatest challenge I anticipate is the anger-fueled gap between the part of the world that is trying its best to look normal again and the part of the world that is still caring for COVID-19 patients, the patients who are still recovering and rehabbing, the bereaved families who have lost members to COVID-19, and the scenes seared into the memories of the first responders and medical teams.