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Lucy SoucekOctober 15, 2021
Nicole Thompson holds her son Wilder, who is being treated for COVID-19 Oct. 5, 2021, at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital in St. Louis. (CNS photo/Callaghan O'Hare, Reuters)

When Hope Fried received the text from the primary pediatric staff chaplain at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City last spring, she burst into tears. She was on call, working the overnight shift during the residency year of her training as a chaplain. Pacing her Manhattan apartment, her mind was racing.

The message came in at around nine in the evening explaining that a Catholic, Spanish-speaking mother in the labor and delivery unit was preparing to give birth to a baby who would either be stillborn or expected to die soon after birth. She was asking for her child to be baptized.

But 32-year old Ms. Fried is Jewish.

A Catholic, Spanish-speaking mother in the labor and delivery unit was preparing to give birth to a baby who would either be stillborn or expected to die soon after birth.

Normally, she would have called for a Catholic priest to perform the baptism, but it was late in the evening in the middle of a global pandemic. If the baby was born alive and they waited for the priest to make it over to the hospital, they ran the risk that the baby might die before the priest arrived to perform the sacrament of baptism.

Covid-19 restrictions meant Ms. Fried was not allowed to be physically present at the hospital during the overnight shift. She had never witnessed a Catholic baptism. Now, on the phone from her living room, she would have to teach a doctor or a nurse to perform the ritual.

“Covid made it so that in the times where you would call for a priest or you’d try to call for an Imam, that wasn’t available,” said Ms. Fried. “It asked more of us, because just the logistics weren’t really possible. I think a lot of chaplains were like, O.K., we just have to show up with our full humanity.”

After her initial bout of panic, Ms. Fried realized she had a choice to make.

Normally, she would have called for a Catholic priest to perform the baptism, but it was late in the evening in the middle of a global pandemic.

In hospitals across New York City, pandemic restrictions have forced chaplains to navigate novel and, even uncomfortable, situations in their attempts to administer care. Their training prepares them to honor the belief systems of their patients, even when those belief systems are dramatically different from their own.

Growing up in a multi-religious household influenced Ms. Fried’s eventual path to chaplaincy. Her mom is Catholic and her dad is Jewish. From her youth, she felt a greater connection to Judaism, although she has never had a strong belief in God. Today, she identifies as a Jewish Humanist. When deciding what career to pursue, religion felt important; if she was meant to become a rabbi, she thought, God would reach out. That never happened.

“I thought, ‘Maybe I should try chaplaincy,’” said Ms. Fried. “It doesn’t have to be super religious, but you get to be with people; you get to accompany people.”

If the baby was born alive, they ran the risk that the baby might die before the priest arrived to perform the sacrament of baptism.

She graduated from Union Theological Seminary in the spring of 2020. After completing four units of clinical pastoral education and participating in a yearlong residency, she became a board-certified chaplain. Today, she is a staff chaplain at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan.

On that night, Ms. Fried called the doctor on call, who also happens to be Jewish. “We were both very firm,” said Ms. Fried. “I remember that feeling of being really grounded in our intention of like: ‘We’ve been asked to do this; we are going to do this.’”

Both Ms. Fried’s staff chaplain and her clinical supervisor emailed her a guide to performing an emergency baptism: outlining the protocol, sample prayers and information on how to provide support over the phone.

When deciding what career to pursue, religion felt important; if she was meant to become a rabbi, she thought, God would reach out. That never happened.

Ms. Fried didn’t know Spanish, so she watched YouTube videos and practiced the ritual with her husband, over and over again, before talking the doctor through the ritual.

The baby was born at around 4:30 a.m., alive. A nurse performed the baptism, though Ms. Fried does not know the nurse’s religious affiliation or the languages she speaks. At 4:45 a.m., Ms. Fried called the on-call priest to come to the hospital to bless the baby and provide an official document. The baby died later that morning.

“I think sometimes we attend to the worst moments in people’s lives,” said Ms. Fried. “We try to be present and accompany, and we try to lessen, slightly, their spiritual distress. And, I think having their baby baptized was able to slightly lessen some of that spiritual distress.”

She watched YouTube videos and practiced the ritual with her husband, over and over again, before talking the doctor through the ritual.

Throughout this whole situation was the tension between Ms. Fried’s Jewish Humanism and the Catholic ritual she was being asked to lead someone through. But Ms. Fried, relying on what she learned about being a hospital chaplain in an interfaith setting, thinks of it as an expression of love.

“If a family has this request and this is their ultimate expression of love, and [it] will provide some sense of spiritual relief to know that their baby has been baptized and blessed by God and will be accepted into heaven,” said Ms. Fried, “I think that’s an ultimate expression of love, and I will perform it.”

During her yearlong residency, Ms. Fried was guided by her education supervisor, the Rev. David Fleenor, an Episcopal priest and the director of education at The Center for Spirituality and Health at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, where Ms. Fried completed her chaplaincy residency.

Throughout this whole situation was the tension between Ms. Fried’s Jewish Humanism and the Catholic ritual she was being asked to lead someone through.

Rev. Fleenor taught Ms. Fried to keep at the forefront of her mind the context of the situation and how that determines her role as the chaplain. The timing of the birth, the support she received from her educators and other chaplains, and the importance of this ritual to the family, all drove Ms. Fried’s decision to make sure the baptism would happen.

“The whole situation was soaked in love,” said Rev. Fleenor. “People have their own convictions, but the beautiful work that she did was to dig deeper within herself and find that love was a deeper value; that love and care and compassion compelled her more to facilitate this meaningful ritual for this family, at such a profound time of loss in their life.”

Profound loss was ubiquitous throughout the pandemic. Hospital chaplains spent much of their time caring not only for their patients and families but for hospital staff as well. At Mount Sinai, chaplains had the option to administer care in person, throughout the pandemic, and many did. Rev. Fleenor said their role of caring for staff at the hospital was vital and is work that is too valuable to be done over the phone.

“The whole situation was soaked in love,” said Rev. Fleenor. "Love and care and compassion compelled her more to facilitate this meaningful ritual for this family, at such a profound time of loss in their life.”"

“What happens with chaplains is that they are embedded on units and they walk around and staff informally say, ‘Man I’m really struggling,’” said Rev. Fleenor. “They’re not necessarily gonna reach out to the employee assistance program. But when the chaplain happens to be there, then they open up.”

But to be able to provide staff support, hospital chaplains also need to know how to take care of themselves.

At Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., the staff chaplains were able to administer care in person throughout the pandemic, just not in the rooms of Covid-19 patients. Figuring out how to sustain care and avoid compassion fatigue is now one of their primary concerns.

Hospital chaplains also need to know how to take care of themselves.

“It’s like everyone’s taking a vacation or is sick or something,” said the Rev. Christine Davies, an ordained Presbyterian minister and the director of pastoral care at Robert Wood Johnson. “They’re all dropping like flies just because of the sheer amount of suffering that they witnessed; It’s unparalleled. And so I think they’re still carrying a lot of that.”

Rev. Davies, who is 38, teaches clinical pastoral care education courses. Much of what she teaches her students has to do with learning how to maintain their own emotional wellbeing, she said, so they can care for others—especially after this past year.

“Even right now, when we’re not in a surge, I’m cognizant of my students’ cumulative exhaustion since the pandemic started,” said Rev. Davies. “A lot of it is helping them to see and acknowledge and be aware of their own feelings and emotions so that they can honor the emotions in others.”

“Even right now, when we’re not in a surge, I’m cognizant of my students’ cumulative exhaustion since the pandemic started,” said Rev. Davies.

Working as chaplain during the pandemic, Ms. Fried has learned to recognize when she might not be able to give the care she wishes she could.

“I think it just really made me aware of how long lasting the intensity of the pain that we’re asked to witness and hold is, and that that can become sort of ingrained in your body and needs to be processed over a longer period of time.”

When she got home from her shift the day after the baptism, her husband ordered her favorite takeout dish, Pad Thai. She spent the afternoon watching “The Real Housewives” and taking moments to cry. She has a running joke with Rev. Fleenor that she’s the crying chaplain.

“Your body needs to release the anguish and the fear and uncertainty,” said Ms. Fried. “All that needs to come out, and my way is through crying.”

Editor’s note: In the event of an emergency, anyone can perform a baptism. All that is necessary, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is for the one baptizing “to will to do what the Church does when she baptizes, and to apply the Trinitarian baptismal formula” (No. 1256).

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