If You Build It…

If You Build It…

…then the patients will show up. One of the early signs of viral troubles was the building projects that the hospital where I work as a chaplain, the University of Chicago Medical Center, took on. Within days, parts of the hospital were transformed. The emergency department created a new area for patients with respiratory problems, and they were segregated from the patients with other problems. This required adapting a new space that hadn’t been developed into a space that could house patients. Additionally, a quarantine area was created along with a testing area, and unfinished floors were turned into ICU rooms to increase capacity.

There was talk of tents. Would we erect large tents outside to increase capacity around testing and the emergency room? Just the talk of tents gave me restless nights. Over the weekend of March 14-15, I kept waking up at night with the image of field hospitals in my head and thinking, “We’re going to have to build field hospitals.” My only experience with field hospitals was watching M*A*S*H* and seeing news reports from other countries in crisis. To me, field hospitals signified not having the resources to treat everyone, using triage methods, and calling in the military for help.

Whether we were building field hospitals or not, the military structure of the hospital was being revealed. To be clear, I don’t know that it was ever explicitly hidden, but it was becoming more obvious. A few years earlier, while I was working at a different hospital, one of the transplant surgeons described the hierarchy she was part of as similar to the military. She noted, that when a surgeon is part of the medical team, she is the commander, she is in charge of all the other members of the team. When I started that job, we had orientation that involved knowing what to do in a systemic emergency. The hospital would establish a command center. As an employee, you needed to know physically where to be in such an emergency and what your relationship to the command center would be. Chaplains (or at least the head of chaplaincy) would be inside the command center. I remember thinking, “Do I really need to know this?” At the moment I didn’t need to know it, but it did prompt my thinking about the military structure of hospitals. No doubt, my essential-ness as a chaplain at the hospital is indebted to the essential-ness of chaplains in the military. Chaplains deploy with the troops they serve. For me, that’s what hospital chaplaincy feels like now: deployed to serve patients, families, and staff.

If the skills, care, empathy, and symbolic aspects of chaplains are essential, then what does that mean about our rebuilding efforts post-COVID? Can these aspects of being human be integrated into the society we rebuild?


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