March 30, 2020

‘People want to tell their stories’: UAB chaplains keep connecting through COVID–19

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Editor's Note: The information published in this story is accurate at the time of publication. Always refer to for UAB's current guidelines and recommendations relating to COVID-19.

rep malcolm marler 550pxMalcolm Marler in his office with a hand-made mask supplied by a member of the community.There is a moment, familiar to any longtime resident of tornado-prone country, when an approaching storm announces itself with eerie silence. “Before the tornado comes, there is a quiet, still time — it has felt a little like that this past week,” said Malcolm Marler, director of UAB Pastoral Care. UAB Hospital saw a leap in patients with diagnosed or suspected COVID–19 in the last full week of March, but models predict the peak is still a few weeks away.

In a stark change, Marler and his team of 30 chaplains are not able to talk with these patients face to face. “We are choosing not to see them in person because it uses up personal protective equipment like gloves and masks,” Marler said. “We are calling them and their families by phone to connect, instead, and we are just at the point where we may be able to offer video chats thanks to telehealth at UAB.”

On a normal day, you will find one chaplain permanently stationed in the emergency department, another on call for emergency needs and the rest visiting with patients. It is a similar situation for chaplains staffing Pastoral Care’s night (3 p.m. to 11 p.m.) and overnight (11 p.m. to 7 a.m.) shifts. UAB is one of the few hospitals in the state where chaplains are on site 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “I am thankful to UAB for having that kind of support for patients and families and employees,” Marler said.

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This past week has been anything but normal, of course. “Before COVID–19 our Pastoral Care team would see probably a couple of hundred patients a day,” Marler said. But as UAB cancels elective procedures and makes other moves to prepare for a potential flood of COVID–19 cases, “we started noticing we don’t have as many requests to see patients, so we are shifting more support to rounding — walking through units and letting patients, families and employees talk to us about their concerns,” Marler said.

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“We have a lot of really tired, amazing employees right now,” he continued. “I just want to say how grateful we are for our health care employees doing what they are all doing right now. It’s amazing to observe and I’m very thankful to them.”

Marler and his team find themselves spending more and more time talking with fellow UAB employees these days. “Before COVID–19 I would say that a quarter of our time was spent supporting employees,” he said. “That’s flipped — probably 50 to 75% of our ministry right now is in caring for as many employees as we can.”

rep pastoral michael horwitz 300pxChaplain Michael HorwitzWhat do Marler and his chaplains say to bring comfort? “Almost always in crisis people want to be able to tell their stories,” Marler said. “You have something that has been hard for you individually and you want to share that. We want to understand, for everyone we talk with, How is this experience unique to you? If you feel heard, there is healing in being heard.”

Respect in action

The work of UAB Pastoral Care is an excellent example of respect, one of UAB’s seven shared values.

Even chaplains with Marler's experience — he has been doing this for three decades — must constantly remind themselves to "not let our own vision of the world get in the way of meeting someone else's need," he said. "I have a 28-year-old son who is a pharmacist in our hospital. If I'm visiting someone who has a 28-year-old son in the hospital and is very ill, I have to say, 'I'm not going to project how I'm feeling and assume this person is feeling the same way I would.' I'm going to ask questions for clarification about their experience."

It is important “to take care of yourself as best as you can,” Marler tells workers. “You need to take time out and rest. Those of us in health care will run ourselves into the ground to help other people because we see the need and that is why we got into this in the first place.” Marler tries “to practice what I’m preaching,” he said with a laugh this past Friday. “I’ve been working six 12-hour days for a few weeks now, but I’ve got a great team and a great assistant manager who can do just as good a job as I can. I’m going to take my dog for a long walk today.”

What can you do to help?

“We’re encouraging folks everywhere to think about how they can look after each other and bring a sense of community and connection — how they can meet the needs of those around them, especially those who are vulnerable to COVID-19,” Marler said. “If you are part of a faith community, which often have a lot of members over the age of 60, think about what’s an organized way to call those people on a regular basis to make sure they have what they need. Others can go to the grocery store for them, pick up medicines” and leave them at their front door to maintain appropriate social distancing, Marler said.

“We need your help in the community to be calling and checking on people; there will be a lot of people who if they're not checked on and encouraged, they could become patients in our hospitals as well,” Marler said. “Maybe you don't know everyone on your street. Think about who on your street needs assistance and find creative ways to get to know them without breaking social distancing guidelines. We feel like that's how people can be really helpful.”