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Lee Memorial chaplain adapts to changes due to pandemic, remains hopeful

A staff chaplain at Lee Memorial Hospital says his life has turned upside down since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. He’s been forced to change the way he comforts patients and those visiting their loved ones.

We spoke to chaplain Mike Warthen about his most emotional experiences at Lee Health during the pandemic.

Tuesday, he said somebody wanted to go in and see their mom as she was getting ready to pass away.

“They were begging, ‘Can we please go,’” Warthen explained. And he said, ‘I’m so sorry. No, you can’t. You can’t. I wish it were different.’”

“Been a lot of heartbreak. Been a lot of joy,” Warthen said. “A lot of learning. Been a lot of celebrations. But, you know, a lot of heartbreak.”

Sitting in the chapel inside Lee Memorial, Warthen reflected on his ministry and how its changed during the pandemic.

“It’s a little bit more problematic,” he said.

A chaplain for 24 years, Warthen is experienced dealing with sadness and death. He is also used to reaching out and touching the people he prays with.

Not anymore.

“We’ll go into the room but very little contact,” Warthen said. “We go into those rooms once we’re called. We put on the N95 respirator and another mask on top of that and our goggles, and I wear a disposable protective gown over all of that.”

Warthen says one of the biggest struggles for patients is loneliness. For the staff, it’s keeping their spirits up.

“One of the nurses said, ‘Can you bless my hands? I said, ‘Yeah,’” Warthen recalled. “And so I always carry a little vial of oil in my pocket.”

The ritual gain popularity among staff members.

“And then, well, ‘How about me how about me?'” Warthen explained he’d bless more and more staffers. “Before you know it, the whole unit was asking to have their hands blessed.”

“I got a report this morning of how much they appreciated it. Even one nurse said it changed her life,” Warthen said.

Warthen typically visits with at least two to three COVID-19 patients on a weekly basis. He also said Lee Memorial would like to relax visitation rules for families of patients, but it remains difficult with the continued rise in cases.

Despite the grim circumstances, the chaplain remains positive.

“Oh, I’m hopeful,” Warthen said. “I think we’re learning to take better care of each other.”

Reporter:Michelle Mackonochie
Writer:Jack Lowenstein
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