Facing unprecedented COVID-19 restrictions, Minnesota chaplains still comforting others

A woman wearing a face mask stands behind a window
Hospital chaplains like Sarah Lindberg are helping patients and staff cope because of the COVID-19 pandemic. She works at Hennepin Healthcare in Minneapolis.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Updated: 8:25 a.m.

Chaplain Sarah Lindberg wears a mask and eye cover when she comforts others at Hennepin Healthcare.

For seven years, Lindberg has offered spiritual outreach to patients at the Twin Cities Level I trauma center. She’s a Christian minister, but is available to anyone no matter their belief systems.

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly diminished the power of closeness and touch, Lindberg said.

“Now, part of my assessment with patients beyond asking about spiritual and emotional needs is asking how they’re connecting with their loved ones right now, if they have their cellphone with them, Lindberg said. “Not everyone remembers to bring that when the ambulance is coming. It isn’t the first thing on their mind.”

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Rabbi Lynn Liberman, Jewish Family Service of St. Paul.
Rabbi Lynn Liberman, Jewish Family Service of St. Paul.
Courtesy of Lynn Liberman

Rabbi Lynn Liberman has been a chaplain for Jewish Family Service of St. Paul for seven years. Liberman has also worked in hospice and hospital settings, where she meets people going through huge life changes. She’s been using FaceTime or Zoom to connect with patients often facing pain and illness.

It is challenging, Liberman said. She shared one example of a patient who was losing his eyesight, so communicating through screens was not working for him.

“He said to me, ‘I just didn’t think I could get any lonelier.’ The greatest disease in the world is loneliness,” Liberman said.

Nicole Smith, chaplain at Hennepin Healthcare
Nicole Smith, chaplain at Hennepin Healthcare.
Courtesy of Nicole Smith

Chaplain Nicole Smith of Hennepin Healthcare said she spends much more of her time comforting hospital staff members during the pandemic.

She’s also grateful for her own colleagues who help her process her days.

“That gives us time to sort of release some of what happened,” Smith said. “So much of our ministry is not just words, it’s being present with people.”

The Association of Professional Chaplains reports it recently began daily virtual roundtables in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to help more than 5,000 members from various faiths across the world comfort each other.

The organization is offering resources including best practices around virtual care, like how to set gentle boundaries around time and interpret or use silence to help people open up.

Lindberg said every person has unique needs.

“Sometimes that looks like praying, sometimes it doesn't, sometimes it’s silence,” she said.

It’s harder these days to break through with people, Liberman said, because many times they are limited to voice.

“It takes just a thousand-fold more time to listen deeply to their voice, to listen to their pauses,” she continued, “but I tell you, you can hear someone smile on the phone.”