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By MegAnne Liebsch

July 15, 2020 — The floors of Brigham and Women’s Hospital are hushed. There is a pervasive loneliness felt among staff and patients alike, says Stephen Nicholson, SJ, who currently serves as a chaplain in the hospital’s spiritual care department.

Nicholson (left) with Matt Ippel, SJ.
With the hospital closed to visitors, patients are cut off from loved ones. “It can be very distressing and disorienting to be in a room by yourself for that long at a hospital,” says Nicholson. He tries to offer “a calming presence” and help people connect using spirituality and prayer resources. “That’s been huge.”

Nicholson has worked with fellow hospital staff to connect these patients to their families via iPads to provide some face-to-face contact. While some patients are alert and able to make the calls themselves, hospital staff also sets up iPads for intubated and sedated patients.

“Their family would just really like to see them,” Nicholson says. For patients that recover, these iPads are a lifeline to their loved ones, but in end-of-life situations, this remote connection can be especially painful.

“I’ve had a profound experience when I’ve been in rooms with patients, particularly as they’re nearing the end of their life. Saint Teresa of Ávila has this prayer about being the hands and feet of Jesus in the world: ‘Christ has no body now but yours, no feet, no hands, but yours.’”

When Nicholson thinks of the family members who would normally be by the patient’s bedside in their last hours of life, St. Teresa’s prayer takes on new meaning.

“What would the family say? If Jesus were here, what would you want this person to know, even if they’re sedated?” Nicholson wonders. “I’ve just felt a really profound call to embody that, just the love and mercy of God. To say, ‘The love of your family is here with you. The love of God is here with you.’ To hold somebody’s hand.”

In a time of social distancing and isolation, “the bare minimum of physical contact feels essential.”

Sometimes Nicholson’s work focuses less on specifically Christian worship, though. In moments of crisis at the hospital, he tries to provide some tranquility.

“To be in the room, particularly when there’s a crisis happening and to just facilitate a moment of deep breathing and quiet can really be centering and can be hugely important,” Nicholson explains. “When there are so many facts and figures, and there’s so much stress and anxiety, [it’s important] to slow things down and create a little bit of space.”

This centering is important for medical staff, too. Many doctors and nurses feel isolated, increasingly stressed by the vast impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

A Physician Assistant administer tests for COVID-19 at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital community testing site.
“The nurses, in particular, are providing a lot of emotional support that families would often offer,” says Nicholson. Since the pandemic started, a larger portion of his work is spent offering spiritual resources and support to overburdened medical staff.

Many ICU and COVID-19 nurses have put in extra hours to combat the virus. One nurse volunteered to work one extra 12-hour shift a week, according to Nicholson. “She just feels it’s that important. People like that, stories like that are just all over the place.”

Nicholson says there is much to be learned from the dedication of hospital staff during the pandemic. “That quiet dedication, that humility … it doesn’t take away the bad things, but, there’s something deeper than that.”

Brigham and Women’s slogan is “we’re stronger together,” which Nicholson likens to the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes.

“Who knows how all that food came up?” Nicholson asks. “Was it a miracle … or did people start giving what they had? Who knows? But the point of the story is at the end, they had enough and more. I believe that very deeply about the way the world works.”

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MegAnne Liebsch is the communications associate for the Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology.