Priests get creative in ministering to COVID-19 patients at Twin Cities hospitals

| April 29, 2020 | 0 Comments

Father Jerome Fehn deals with a new reality at Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, walking through the doors only when called to see a specific patient. He has been a chaplain at this hospital, and at University of Minnesota’s M Health Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina, since 1985. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

When Father Jerome Fehn first started doing hospital ministry in the 1980s, he could not have imagined using a video camera to provide pastoral care to a patient.

That is the new reality during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has driven many hospitals locally and throughout the country to limit entry into rooms of patients testing positive for the coronavirus. The restriction can even apply even to family members and chaplains.

It has left priests like Father Fehn, who has added his own protocols and follows hospital rules to protect himself and patients, scrambling and struggling to find ways to offer meaningful support to those sick with the illness and, in some cases, dying from it.

He calls the new protocols “for sure” the biggest change he has seen in 35 years of hospital ministry, dating back to 1985 when he was assigned to serve both Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park (HealthPartners) and Fairview Southdale Hospital in Edina (now called M Health Fairview Southdale Hospital). Both hospitals currently allow chaplains to enter rooms with COVID-19 patients, but Father Fehn has decided to stay out of those rooms due to a desire to protect his health and not wanting to be quarantined and pulled out of ministry should he contract the illness or be suspected of having it. Both hospitals support his decision, hospital spokespeople said.

In addition to staying out of rooms with COVID-19 patients, Father Fehn limits his time in the two hospitals in general. He now only enters either hospital when paged to see a specific patient, which is only a handful of times per week, and wears a mask at all times while inside the building. After checking in, he sees only that patient, and he leaves the hospital when he is finished.

That routine reduces another part of his ministry, which is to hospital staff. Now, he only briefly greets doctors and nurses as he is coming and going to a patient’s room. It all adds up to him being a priest with lots of care to give and — much more often than he would like — no place to give it.

“The past week and a half, I’ve been called maybe six times,” said Father Fehn, 67, who was ordained for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis in 1978. He sees anyone who asks, and has visited with three COVID-19 patients so far. And, outside of anointing a person who is in danger of dying (using a cotton swab or Q-tip to administer the sacrament of anointing of the sick), he only visits a COVID-19 patient through a glass window or through a camera set up in the patient’s room with a video feed to a room where he is.

Bishop Andrew Cozzens is pursuing a more formal ministry to COVID-19 patients. He is recruiting young priests to be available to administer the sacrament of anointing of the sick to seriously ill COVID-19 patients in hospitals, nursing homes and patients’ homes. A dozen priests selected for this ministry are receiving training and will be available to anoint COVID-19 patients, Bishop Cozzens said. Calls for these priests will come from parishes, with those interested asked to contact a local parish to be connected to specialists who can navigate the health system and help arrange anointings.

Another experienced chaplain also is adjusting to the new reality. Father Michael Monogue, 68, has ministered at United Hospital and Children’s Minnesota Hospital, both in St. Paul, since 2009. He has seen one COVID-19 patient in person that he is aware of. The visit took place in mid-March, after he had been called to the emergency room to anoint the person. At the time, it was not known whether the patient had COVID-19. A positive test result came later.

He still keeps regular hours at the two hospitals, but wears a mask in every room when he visits patients. His only in-person visits are with non-COVID-19 patients; visits with COVID-19 patients are mostly by phone, with the option of a video meeting available. So far, he has had three phone conversations with COVID-19 patients.

Despite the change, “I have found it to be very meaningful,” Father Monogue said of the phone calls. He also arranges to have Communion brought to the patients if they desire it. He will give it to a nurse to bring into the room, along with prayers for the patient to pray before and after receiving Eucharist. He said patients have responded positively to receiving Eucharist in their room.

“It’s different, but I’m very happy about the fact that I can still be in contact with the person and that they can still receive the sacrament of holy Communion,” he said. “I also explain to them what the archdiocese is doing, and how the graces of God are available, even if we cannot do the sacraments in the normal fashion. … They find that to be very meaningful, and nurturing and sustaining for them at this point in their lives.”

Both priests know that they are early in the new chapter of hospital ministry during the current pandemic, and expect to see more COVID-19 patients at their respective hospitals. And, both are ready to provide whatever spiritual care they can.

“I love what I do as … a chaplain,” Father Monogue said. “And, if I can serve (COVID-19 patients), I certainly want to do that. And, I want to help the archdiocese do what it can do, and the Church to do what it can do to continue to (ad)minister the sacraments to them.”

Similarly, Father Fehn wants to keep serving in hospital ministry, which for him has its roots in his teenage years when he got a job at as a speech pathology aide at the University of Minnesota Hospital. In his first year of priesthood in 1978, he volunteered to be on call as a chaplain at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis two to three nights a month. That eagerness to spiritually care for sick and dying people remains.

“Sometimes, in praying and listening to the family or the patient, I have teared up,” he said. “If I stop tearing up, if I stop feeling it in my heart, that’s the day I have to leave hospital ministry.”

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