BHRUT hospital chaplain tells of challenges facing team during coronavirus crisis

BHRUT lead chaplain Rev Phil Wright. Picture: BHRUT

BHRUT lead chaplain Rev Phil Wright. Picture: BHRUT - Credit: BHRUT

A hospital chaplain has told how he faced “every type of emotion” while supporting bereaved families during the coronavirus crisis.

Rev Phil Wright, the lead chaplain for Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust (BHRUT), spoke to more than 380 families in just two months at the height of the pandemic.

“I think I’ve experienced every type of emotion possible in recent months,” he said.

“I’ve been challenged in every part of my life, at times feeling like I was in control and playing the superhero, and other times I’ve felt like a complete failure and wanted to curl up in a ball and hide. I’ve cried with those around me, and also laughed and had feelings of joy and pride.”

Rev Wright was on annual leave when the UK went into lockdown, and said that when he returned the following week, the situation had “changed so much”.

He told how he was called to support a patient with coronavirus at King George Hospital over the Easter weekend.

“I arrived at the ward which was very surreal as it looked like a scene from a science fiction film,” he said.

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“I was advised what PPE to don and did so with a little bit of trepidation. As I put on the gown, I remember thinking, ‘how close can I sit to the patient and her daughter?’ It wasn’t the first time I’d donned PPE, but this felt different, more intense.”

He added: “I arrived at the bedside and sat with the daughter who was crying and holding her mum’s hand - her mum had just died. I felt sick that I hadn’t got there in time. We sat together and talked, and I prayed over her mum.

“Through her tears she told me that her father had also died, just four days before, of Covid-19. This disease had ripped her family apart.”

He told how his team were also responsible for calling bereaved relatives to let them know which mortuary patients had been taken to, something he admitted he found difficult at first.

“What do you say to someone who has just lost a loved one they were likely unable to visit?” he said.

“But after finding the right words this became an important part of my work. Families would often be very grateful for the call as it gave them a chance to talk about their loved one. It was time consuming, given that I was calling so many families each day, however, it was also a privilege. I felt it was worthwhile and something we could do well during the chaos that was surrounding us.”

Rev Wright said that many of the families he spoke to were struggling to deal with their loss, and that at times he felt like he was intruding into their grief.

“When I was sitting at a patient’s bedside, I felt I was playing my part and had a purpose,” he said.

“Making calls began to feel like chasing numbers and I felt helpless. I spoke to another senior manager around this time and found they felt the same.

“However, I then started to see the calls as a way of supporting bereaved families. The more we talked, the more we were learning about what support they needed – more than general funeral advice, they needed to tell you about their devastation that they couldn’t say goodbye, and that they were frightened.”

In April and May alone, the chaplaincy and bereavement team spoke to more than 380 families, with Rev Wright saying the process will be continued because of how important the process became.

“Like so many staff, the pandemic has affected me outside work too,” he added.

“At the beginning of lockdown everyone was thinking on their feet and I felt I was thriving in leading my team.

“But as time went on, I started to struggle. I felt the management side of work became overwhelming and I didn’t consider how Covid-19 was affecting me personally.

“Usually when we deal with trauma or tragedy, even a terrorist event, it’s short-lived in the heat of the moment.

“Of course, the impact is felt much longer afterwards but the incident and tragedy tend to be for a short period of time.

“We do our bit and then go home, and our life continues mostly as it did before. Now that was gone, there was no normal to go home to, nowhere to escape or recharge our batteries.”

He added: “During this period it was often the smaller things that brought me the most joy. Leading the silence for the NHS staff who had died was an honour.

“The feeling I had in the atrium when I looked up and saw so many people blew me away.

“I’ve led many silences over the years, but this was different, you could not only see the emotion in people’s eyes, you could feel it.”