VA NY Harbor Healthcare System
Frontline care brought peace to sick, distressed
NEW YORK — Amidst the struggles faced by patients and the providers treating them during the peak of COVID-19, a different type of battle existed just below the surface. As the hospital dealt with the coronavirus crescendo, many staff members faced internal struggles that surged right along with the curve.
The chaplains were here to help flatten that curve. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, and June being PTSD Awareness month, it’s an important time to talk about the consistent, frontline contributions made by the Chaplain Service at VA New York Harbor Healthcare.
One night back in March at Harbor’s Manhattan Campus, Chief of Chaplains Father Andrew Sioleti and Rabbi Andrew Scheer encountered a medical provider who happened to be a Veteran of multiple combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I can’t sleep. I go home feeling guilty every night that I couldn’t do more. That I couldn’t save just one more patient. I finally dozed off two nights ago when I had a nightmare that a patient, intubated for a week already, got out of his bed and shook me, begging me to do more to save his life,” the Veteran told the chaplains. They had the chance encounter while passing through the ICU, making themselves available as usual.
Scheer said in addition to listening, they provided advice on self-care techniques and other counseling that helped this person (and many others) cope.
“When someone comes to us, and then reports feeling better equipped to treat patients in an ICU, that’s the definition of why we do what we do,” Scheer continued.
Familiar faces around all of Harbor’s campuses, countless patients and hospital staff found solace in this specialized team of counselors. Deemed essential by VA from the very beginning, they served as personal confidants who were here to listen and help, as well as provide spiritual guidance for those seeking it.
“It was a very rough time, physically and mentally … patients couldn’t have their families there. It was hard for everyone,” said Laura Fives, a registered nurse in the Brooklyn Campus ICU, who’s been a nurse for more than 34 years. “I had never seen anything like it.”
Fives further explained that she was so distraught in the early days of the pandemic, she wasn’t sure she could’ve made it without the pastoral care she received from Father Sioleti.
“I was in Brooklyn every Sunday going around to all the units speaking to staff both individually and in a group setting about their needs and concerns, providing them space to process how they are dealing with the crisis,” Sioleti said, explaining how he and his team even adapted technology to elevate the level of care they could provide in this new environment.
Scheer worked closely with Sioleti to find creative, innovative solutions to enable family reunions that otherwise weren’t possible due to restrictions on visitation. At Harbor’s St. Albans Campus, the chaplains frequently donned PPE and worked together to facilitate video conferencing. One of the Community Living Center’s elderly patients was accustomed to visiting with his wife every day. Through FaceTime and other technology, the chaplains helped him continue that tradition.
“Our ministry doesn’t end at the gates of the CLC, it goes all the way into the community,” said Scheer, describing in a recent interview his effort to keep Veterans connected with their families. Through tears of grief and tears of joy, the emotional impact of these connections remains immeasurable.
Sioleti, who’s known for his “fatherly” demeanor that immediately sets people at ease, pushed himself hard to be here for as many people as possible. Often, he donned protective gear to minister to COVID-stricken patients. Chief of Psychiatry Dr. Adam Wolkin pointed out that the chaplains had been invaluable during this time, seeing individuals and holding impromptu group counseling sessions when needed. The chaplains also remained on call, long after many had gone to sleep for the night.
The chief of chaplain’s message to patients and staff here is, don’t lose hope. And if you need someone to talk to, whether you’re religious or not, he and his team are here to help. Sioleti said while many people might feel isolated, they are ALL part of his team and never alone.