On the Front Lines as a Chaplain

Apr 1, 2021 | Good Works, News & Events

Sister Kathleen Gallivan, SNDdeN
Director of Spiritual Care: Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA

Sister Kathleen Gallivan, SNDdeN

Brigham and Women’s Hospital (“The Brigham”) is a large academic medical center in Boston, Massachusetts, with a staff of about 17,000 employees. We care for 800 in-patients, their families and thousands of outpatients who come for specialized care, from the local area and also from around the world. As Director of Spiritual Care, my ministry includes directing a department of multi-faith chaplains, providing care to patients and families, supporting hospital employees and a training program for women and men who want to become professional chaplains. Throughout the year, about 20 students intern in our chaplaincy program.

In my eighteen years at the Brigham, I have experienced many crisis events, including people injured in the Boston Marathon bombings in 2005, the tragic shooting of a hospital physician and critical cases from accidents and fires! The COVID-19 crisis has been for me the most challenging experience. Since March 2020, we have treated over 1,000 patients with COVID-19, with more than 200 who have required hospitalization. Most are very sick and many die. Visiting my first critically-ill COVID-19 patient, I prayed and held her hand until she died.

Sr. Kathleen, a doctor and 2 nurses wear protective equipment in the hospital, during the entire day.

During this entire crisis, our hospital personnel and chaplains spent significant time in rooms of COVID-19 patients. Without visitors or limited visitations, family members unable to be with lonely patients, suffer like their loved ones, especially dying individuals. We become the extension of family and try to connect patients and families by using iPads, iPhones and Zoom. As chaplains, in addition to our responsibility for the care of patients and families, we are also responsible for offering caring support to staff. In addition to the sufferings placed on patients and families, COVID-19 it as taken a terrible toll on nurses, doctors, the cooking and cleaning staff, and their families. The pandemic has restricted and discontinued or the present time previous events to support staff. Our chaplains offer now creative support, through an Instagram program in daily inspirational messages and sometimes with videos.

Initially, I responded to an invitation to serve as a chaplain at the Brigham, for an interim year, but soon I felt at home in this wonderful ministry. In the words of Frederick Buechner: “The place where God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet.” This has been true for me as I have just completed eighteen years in this ministry. As we are experiencing now a new outbreak of the virus within the hospital, anxiety lurks with many people. The weather turns and there may be another surge with colder weather. This ministry can be stressful and tiring. Yet I am deeply blessed to know God’s call to the place where I find my own deep gladness and where I can respond to a small part of the world, hungering for connection to the sacred.

Sr. Kathleen and chaplains guide students in an internship program for chaplains.

I belong to a Mental Health task force at the hospital. The management at the Brigham recognizes that attending to the spiritual needs of the whole
community is a vital part of total patient, family and employee care. This responsibility calls me to reflect as a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur (SNDdeN) on my ministry in health care. I am able to live out our charism in seeing the goodness of God among the people with whom I journey. I experience God’s goodness in my staff who often represent the face of God to those who are suffering, overwhelmed or dying. God’s goodness shines forth in our doctors and nurses who care with compassion for their patients. I see God’s goodness in an employee who empties my wastebasket every day, as he works the 3:30-11:00 p.m. shift after working the day shift at another hospital. I pray to reflect God’s goodness through my ministry to all at the Brigham.