Philly hospital chaplain serves as compassionate presence for patients during pandemic

Robin Ross is a chaplain at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia (Philadelphia Tribune photo)

By Ayana Jones

PHILADELPHIA — When the novel coronavirus pandemic hit Philadelphia, the managers at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia asked the chaplains if they wanted to work from home or if they were comfortable being in the hospital.

Robin Ross initially wasn’t comfortable working in the hospital. She was concerned about the possibility of getting sick; she has asthma, one of the health conditions that can exacerbate COVID-19. She also worried about potentially exposing her family to the coronavirus.

“I remember when we first started talking about this as a department,” Ross said. “I said ‘I’m not placing myself in a situation. If I have to choose between me or them, I choose me every time.’”

Her team had that conversation on a Friday. Two days later, during her church’s first virtual meeting, the preacher’s words resonated with her.

“I really felt like God was saying to me through that preached word — I got you,” Ross said. “It doesn’t matter if I get sick or if I don’t get sick, I know that God is still here with me. I just need to put my faith and trust in him. As he has called me to do this work, he will cover me as I do it.”

Ross told her manager that she changed her mind and she’s been working in the hospital with coronavirus patients ever since.

“It’s a blessing to be here at this time,” she said.

Ross said she and the other chaplains — there are three full-time chaplains and four chaplain residents in training at Einstein — have become surrogate family members for coronavirus patients because their families are not allowed to come in and visit.

The chaplains continue to visit some patients, and use Facetime and Zoom to help them connect with their families. That has been “such a powerful experience for the patients as well as their families,” Ross said.

The chaplains communicate with other patients through phone calls.

Rabbi Leah Wald, the manager of Einstein’s chaplains department, said their jobs are more crucial now.

“When patients are in the hospital and they are experiencing medical changes, or potential loss, or new diagnosis, the emotions can be overwhelming and feel chaotic,” Wald said.

“Chaplains can help people talk through what they are experiencing and help turn that chaos into something that the patients can then express. By putting it into words, it helps the patients be able to define how they are feeling and talk about the decisions that they want to make and identify coping skills.”

The chaplains try to visit or connect with as many COVID-19 patients as possible.

Ross recalled an occasion when she donned personnel protective equipment and visited a makeshift unit of 14 coronavirus patients. She went from bed to bed, praying for all the patients. A nurse who wasn’t working the unit walked in and translated Ross’ prayer for a patient who spoke another language.

Ross said it wasn’t a coincidence that the nurse came in at that time.

“That nurse was there because I was there and I wanted this particular patient to have a ministry of presence with me,” she said.

“To be able to have a prayer at the foot of the bed for everybody who was there, it was quite meaningful to me, as well as to the staff who was actually witnessing it.”

Once of the most challenging aspects of her work is seeing patients die from the coronavirus. She was trained in an hospice setting, so she’s been in situations where people were dying.

“This is a little different because the people who are on hospice, they have a terminal illness (and) know that they are dying, but in this COVID situation, you have people who are young that many have walked themselves into the hospital and now they’re no longer with us,” she said.

Every chaplain or chaplain resident is assigned to a unit of the hospital, Ross said, “but there are still those times where we haven’t gotten to the person before they passed away.”

Ross relies on practicing spiritual discipline to cope with the sadness that comes with losing patients.

“I have to tap into my spiritual source in order to function because if I do it in my own strength then I’m going to burn out,” said Ross, an associate minister at Ebenezer Temple Pentecostal Church.

Chaplaincy is a second career for Ross.

Ross, who is in her 40s, taught third-graders at a Belmont Charter Elementary School in West Philadelphia for several years before she felt compelled to do something different. At the time, she was pursuing her master’s degree in education.

“I felt in my spirit that the Lord was saying to me, ‘OK, Robin, I want you to go into seminary,’” said the Southwest Philadelphia native.

But she didn’t want to go to seminary. Ross experienced the “worst case of writer’s block” when she attempted to write her master’s thesis.

“I finally said, ‘OK, Lord, I surrender. I’ll go.’ Once I said that, my mind just opened up and I was able to finish my thesis in a month,” she said.

Ross enrolled in Palmer Theological Seminary in 2009 and did her rotation in chaplaincy at Simpson House nursing home.

“The first day I was there, I knew that this is what I was supposed to do,” she said.

Ayana Jones is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.