AUGUSTA, Ga. – It was early on in the pandemic when Daniel Wager learned about an elderly COVID-19 patient in isolation struggling to get in contact with her family.
Wager, the manager of pastoral care at University Hospital, sprung into action, gowned up and went to see the patient to connect her with her family, who was in quarantine and could not see her. Wager said they prayed together and the family was grateful for the help he provided.
“She died six hours later,” Wager said. “That was my first experience with patients dying in isolation from their families.”
It’s been more than a year since the pandemic hit Augusta, and throughout that time, chaplains at local hospitals have been trying to make sure families remain connected.
Jeff Flowers, director of spiritual care at Augusta University, said they began to prepare for COVID-19 cases to arrive in December 2019. Although cases were only in Asia at the time, Flowers said they knew the coronavirus would reach Augusta and wanted to be prepared.
“It was last March when it really set in for us that we were in for a long journey,” he said. “From the spiritual care portion of it, the family presence has always been essential in supporting patients. Because of the nature of COVID and having to do the distance communication, no traveling, not being able to have them here, it was very difficult.”
Flowers said they are used to dealing with patients who are sick and go through a certain pattern where the illness progresses and the patient dies, which allows them to prepare families and counsel them. COVID-19 was a totally different situation because of its unpredictability, Wager said.
“COVID was another thing added to what was already an emotionally intense job in an emotionally intense setting,” he said.
Regina Winters, manager of patient experience at AU Health, said the most difficult part was having to separate families.
“We are used to dying. We are not in the business of separating family. Having to navigate that was absolutely gut-wrenching,” she said. “We cried with them. We were angry with them for being separated. We understood.”
Because of the pandemic, AU Health did not allow any visitors into adult medical, surgical and intensive care areas, and University Hospital also limited visitors. Flowers said they had been having internal discussions about the matter and had kept families of patients informed so as to not blindside them with the announcement.
Flowers described the day the announcement was made as one of “the most painful days” in the pandemic. He said he will never forget the grief he felt walking the halls of the hospital that night having to tell family members it was time to go. He had a feeling that a lot of them would never see their family members again.
For Flowers, the pandemic has also had a personal toll. His father, who lived at an assisted care center in North Carolina, died of COVID-19 in April 2020. He said they had little to no communication from the care center and only talked to a nurse about how he was doing for 10 minutes every other day.
It motivated him to make sure families whose loved ones were sick with COVID-19 did not have the same experience.
“When he died, we simply got notification that he died, and that moved my heart to say that just can’t happen. We have to do better than that,” Flowers said.
Flowers said there are a lot of things that will stick with him for a long time. He recalled a story involving a COVID-19 patient who had been at the hospital for several weeks and was not getting better. Doctors and nurses had tried every treatment and he just continued to get worse until there was no turning back.
“We had to make the decision knowing he was actively dying how we were going to get the family to be with him during this time. It was several months into the journey when we realized we had to find a way to get families bedside to say goodbye to their loved ones,” he said.
They were able to get his wife into the ICU wearing PPE to spend some time with him. In the room, his wife began to sing to him and for 30 minutes she just sang and talked to him.
As she was walking out and leaving the hospital with Flowers, a nurse brought her a cardiac strip that she had torn off from the machine to show how the patient’s heart rate had changed just by her singing. Flowers said that showed him, even if it’s just 30 minutes, how important it is for family members to be there in times like this.
Gonzalo “Kiko” Castro, 67, spent seven weeks fighting COVID-19. On Sept. 30, his wife took him to the emergency room at AU Medical Center, where he tested positive for COVID.
He was kept at the hospital for two days, then sent home with an oxygen tank but returned a day later. It was the last thing he remembers. He was placed on a ventilator for six weeks in the ICU.
When he woke up, he thought it had only been two days. He said Flowers, the spiritual care team at AU and the team of nurses and doctors helped his family get through the difficult time.
“They were very positive. Each day they would come and they would always encourage me and say I was doing better each day. They encouraged me to keep fighting, not to give up,” he said. “That was a big help that the family was there with me.”
Castro said he is still not 100% but feels great and even goes on walks and to the gym every day.
Winters said health care workers have had to face grief every day while caring for COVID-19 patients, and they are appreciative of the support the community has shown.
“It let us know we were, in fact, not alone,” she said.
Flowers said the pandemic has taken an emotional toll on health care workers. He said staff have had a constant worry of taking COVID-19 back to their families, and it started to become very real for most of them when their fellow nurses started to die.
He said they are providing debriefing, spiritual care and grief counseling in an attempt to help them cope with the emotions caused by the pandemic. He believes for every month of the pandemic, it will take at least two months to bring healing for some health care workers.
Wager is proud of the efforts of his team and others at University Hospital as they continue to ensure families remain connected throughout this pandemic.
“As I go forward and as I think I look back, the most rewarding part for me would be the knowledge I was able to go to a place with a person who was physically isolated from the people they love and be a presence to them physically as well as spiritually,” he said. “We have to take it one day at a time and appreciate what we have in the moment.”
Winters said it’s important to be able to move forward and get the pandemic under control but to never forget those who have died.
“We are not moving on, we are moving forward because to move on would be an insult to those we have lost and what we have been through here and what our staff have been through,” she said.