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Phillip Tutor: A chaplain’s role during a pandemic

RMC Chaplain

RMC Chaplain, Jim Wilson in his office contemplating his years of service to the hospital and community. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

Jim Wilson talks with the slow, pastoral comfort you’d expect from a hospital chaplain. His voice is soothing, like a summer shower. You’re wise to listen when he speaks, and on this he’s adamant: 

“Our whole community has been disrupted by this.”

Everyone knows what “this” is. It’s COVID-19, the disease that’s spawned a global pandemic and to date has killed more Americans than the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. 

Calhoun County is fortunate — for now. State officials Tuesday morning said there were only nine confirmed cases in the county. Anniston’s Regional Medical Center and its sister hospital, Stringfellow Memorial, reported no COVID-19 hospitalizations earlier this week, though they have enacted a strict no-visitation policy during the pandemic. 

And Wilson, RMC’s longtime chaplain, is adamant about this, too:

“I’m here every day,” he said. 

Which is great, but COVID-19’s indiscriminate reach and ever-present danger has nonetheless disrupted Wilson’s routine, a hospital-bedside custom built on offerings of solace and Christian hope.

“I don’t think it’s making (my job) harder,” he said, “but there are limitations.” Severe ones, in fact.

The pandemic has suspended RMC’s Sunday-morning church services.

He counsels most patients and their families by telephone, the one-on-one contact between clergy and believer now a victim of social-distancing requirements.

But he is there, every day.

On that, the disease isn’t winning.

“I’m not able to sit across the table from somebody, and I’m not able to hold their hand and pray with them,” he said. “But I am able to pray with them and make a connection.”

Unseasoned chaplains might struggle in this new COVID-19 reality. In truth, all of us are struggling. But this isn’t Wilson’s first rodeo of chaos. Two-plus decades as a U.S. Navy chaplain skilled him on adaptation. 

“I can’t recall a time when I was prevented from doing my job,” he said. Failure wasn’t an option. Neither was delayed assistance, even during overseas deployments.

Distance didn’t matter.

“There were times when the base operator had to patch me through to a family member and I would have to counsel that family member,” he said, “or I would have to get another chaplain to go out to the home or minister in the hospital or wherever. 

“We do everything we can to meet their needs. But I can’t remember a time where I couldn’t do anything.”

It’s that ethos Wilson and his team of volunteers are trying to retain during the pandemic. With him are 15 or so on-call volunteer clergy and more than 80 other retired nurses, counselors, social workers and lay people who, in normal times, continually visit the sick and counsel families and lessen people’s grief. 

Illness and trauma don’t discriminate between Methodists and Baptists and Episcopalians, or between Christians and Jews and Muslims. Wilson recently asked one of Calhoun County’s Catholic priests if he could help a patient in the intensive-care unit.

Wilson repeatedly mentions prayer. 

“Prayer is a very important part of the ministry,” he said. “There is power in prayer.”

It’s prayer that patients and their families usually desire, he said,  invocations for healing or pleas for relief from their grief.

“But sometimes they just want to talk,” he said. “They just want to be connected to somebody who is willing to listen. When people are struggling and troubled, often we don’t have time to listen.”

COVID-19 is a disease of loneliness. It’s a brutal truth. Hospitals around the world are overflowing with critically ill patients whose families aren’t at their bedsides and are robbed of those final hours of human interaction. The danger of community spread is too real, the risk too great. 

Calhoun County’s good fortune thus far has spared Wilson and his team from a chaplain’s worst-case scenario — being unable to minister in-person with COVID-19 patients. Though that may change. 

I asked Wilson if he’d thought about donning protective equipment and delivering prayers from behind a face mask.

He worries about the national shortage of equipment.

He’s a chaplain, not a doctor or nurse. 

“(But) if that came about, then I think the caregiver and I would have to make that decision together, and it might be because the doctor said the chaplain needs to visit that patient,” he said. “I presume if the physician said that, I would get gowned up and masked up and gloved up and shielded up and go in.

“That probably isn’t going to happen — unless the doctor felt my being there in prayer with that patient is very critical to their recovery.”

Given the ferociousness of this disease, such a soothing voice, even if muffled through a mask, might become necessary in the days before us. 

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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