On the day the lockdown happened, I had my bag packed and ready to go, it was a Monday morning. My routine on a Monday is visiting one of community hospitals in Southampton. Then the lead Chaplain rang and told me I was being ‘stood down’ while we worked through all the information and guidance on managing the social distancing with Covid-19. As the Trust Chaplain, I cover 12 wards in five different hospitals, so I would be at high risk of spreading the virus between our hospitals.
It was a shock to hear those words, but it was understandable. It was very difficult to adjust to this sudden and huge change in my working practice. I had many conflicting thoughts and questions: what about my routine, my role, my purpose, it was abruptly taken away? I couldn’t argue, it was made abundantly clear that I was not going to visit any of my hospitals, patients or staff, but how could I be of use to anyone whilst I'm at home?
I had to ring my wards and explain why I wouldn’t be visiting them; it was so difficult to tell them, it felt so pathetic. It felt as if the chaplain is running away from this situation. The staff are still there, every day they go in to look after our patients, and support their families. Every day they must navigate the changes and challenges being flung at them that come at them from so many different directions.
This was and still is so painful, but the staff were so kind and ministered to me - they told me not to worry, they understood the situation and told me to take care of myself. As the days went on, I felt totally bereft, lost and incredibly guilty. A chaplain’s vocation is to be that ‘untidy presence’; inclusive, compassionate, always accessible, alongside our staff and patients, being with people. Working from home made me feel disconnected and lost. Surely at a time such as this, a chaplain must be available? The levels of anxiety and distress amongst our staff, patients and their families are tangible. Then our churches and all places of worship were also in lockdown.
One of the most unbearable thoughts I had was: how am I going to look people in the eye when this is all over and we return to a new normal and I can visit the wards again? Will the staff say "Well, where have you been Emma while we have been going through all this?" That thought makes me feel very isolated and ashamed; I wasn’t there to help when I was needed. I have let people down and failed at being the chaplain.
I decided that whilst I can't visit our wards anymore, I cannot sit by and do nothing. I am also a nurse and I am still on the register; I can offer myself as a nurse again. I was about to send the email when my lead chaplain rang to say they still needed me as the chaplain - "But how?" I asked "if I can’t go and see anyone?"
Then I got a call from the senior management team working on the Adelaide Hospital: "We need you as the chaplain here." They and the occupational health team rescued me and gave me back my role and identity; they valued my ministry as the chaplain. They affirmed me.
In this difficult time we are facing, we need each other, and we cannot do this on our own. We need the support and care from our colleagues, families and friends in making sense of these changes.
My role as the chaplain has evolved and developed in so many ways with so many amazing people. I am able to visit some wards again and I am once again, among the people I love alongside (whilst maintaining social distancing rules). I have also attended the up-skilling courses, so if I am needed as a nurse again, I am ready to step in.
During all of this turmoil and doubt, a wise friend of mine took me aside and said: "Don’t waste this time that has been given to you, embrace it - work out another way to be creative in your ministry." That is what I am taking forward with me.
Follow Reverend Emma D'Aeth on Twitter for more information about support available and what she's up to: @NHS_chaplain