The Challenges of Providing Spiritual Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic

October 02, 2020
Sarah Rossmassler
Assistant Professor Sarah Rossmassler

“When the COVID-19 crisis hit, all spiritual care providers were considered ‘nonessential,’” said Rabbi Ben Lanckton. “Soon after the first month or so, a few of us were able to go back on site for a couple days a week. I never felt more helpless and more needed.”

Lanckton was among several panelists who spoke September 30 at “Curating Compassion during a Pandemic: Addressing Spirituality with Patients,” the MGH Institute’s first Kenneth B. Schwartz Center Educational Rounds of the 2020-2021 academic year.

Lanckton was joined by Chaplain Joseph Meekins and Rev. Erica Rose Long, both of whom work with him in the Mass General Hospital Spiritual Care department, and Dr. Sarah Rossmassler, an MGH Institute assistant professor of nursing who works at Baystate Medical Center’s inpatient palliative care consultation service. Dr. Emily Z. Eddy, the associate director of Clinical Education in the Department of Occupational Therapy, moderated the virtual Zoom event.

The panelists discussed the role of spiritual care in comforting patients and their loved ones, providing culturally competent care, and helping staff maintain their resilience.

Schwartz Rounds panelists on September 30, 2020
(clockwise from top left) Lanckton, Rossmassler, Meekins, and Long


Long, who along with her peers eventually gained limited access back on the hospital’s campus, told of how she helped a Muslim patient when his children couldn’t visit him last April and May during Ramadan and asked for an imam to visit in their place, “Normally, this would be easy for us – we have an imam on staff – but he had flown home to Sudan to be with his family and couldn’t come back for months,” Long said. “We found an imam who was willing to call patients and I coordinated so that the imam could pray with the nurse and family. We were able to play the Koran for the patient on a CD.”

Meekins noted how the collaboration and cooperation between the spiritual care staff and health care workers played a major role as well. “The chaplain is the spiritual care specialist, but the nurses and staff are the spiritual care generalists,” he said. “They are also caring for the spiritual wellbeing of our patients and their families and, with the diminished presence of loved ones and spiritual care specialists, they have been taking on even more of that burden.”

Rossmassler talked about how health care workers have been affected by caring for so many people critically ill patients during a crisis. She told of one nurse with whom she worked who was distressed because a patient would have to die alone. Because of social distancing, Rossmassler was unable to provide the type of physical touch that can go a long way towards helping people through tough situations.

“I said to her, ‘I’m gonna kick your clog.’ She said, ‘OK.’ It was the way I felt that I could physically connect with her,” Rossmassler said. “I couldn’t touch her shoulder, I couldn’t give her a hug. To me, that ‘clog kick’ is the way I think about how we need to re-prioritize team wellness, connect with other people in ways we haven’t thought about, and really try to unearth new ways to connect and band together. I don’t know if she felt like it was a spiritual connection, but I really did.”

Watch the full Schwartz Rounds video.

About the Kenneth B. Schwartz Center Educational Rounds

In 2003, the MGH Institute became the first school in the country to initiate the Kenneth B. Schwartz Center Educational Rounds, a multidisciplinary forum where the next generation of caregivers discuss difficult emotional and social issues that arise in caring for patients.

The Kenneth B. Schwartz Center promotes pioneering programs to educate, train, and support caregivers in the art of compassionate care. The Boston-based nonprofit was created in 1995 by health care attorney Kenneth Schwartz shortly before he died of lung cancer at the age of 40.

The educational "Rounds" format at the Institute provides students, faculty, alumni, and staff with an opportunity to engage in interprofessional dialogue on important issues that advance a compassionate approach to patient care. Participants are invited to engage in self-reflection and reflective dialogue with their peers.

-    Andrew Criscione