Inside the hospital there are struggles no one sees.
One day last month, hospital chaplain Randee Zitelman donned a mask and went to see one of the patients in isolation at Froedtert Menomonee Falls Hospital.
Zitelman is 69 and in her 10th year as a chaplain. She came to her career after stints in real estate, title insurance and mortgage closings, and when she began to pray with patients and listen to their stories, it felt as if her world opened, “like going from scarcity to abundance, from fear to love.”
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That morning, she did not know what illness the patient had when she knocked on the door, introduced herself and asked permission to enter. From inside, a woman’s voice answered: Yes.
“Let me get gowned up,” Zitelman told the woman, closing the door and turning back to the hallway.
Then came the words.
“She’s COVID-19,” another staff member said. The hospital’s first patient with the virus. The test had just come back.
“Internally I imploded,” Zitelman says. “I wasn’t able to go back into that room. I learned that my personal alarm clock was saying, ‘I’ve got family. I’ve got children. I’ve got grandchildren. I’ve got a husband.’
“My feelings just exploded that day. I knew I didn’t want to die. I was just in this big ball of fear.”
Never in all her years as a chaplain, had she been unable to enter a room — not even close. She’d dressed in full protective gear in order be at the bedside of a patient suffering from tuberculosis, another disease that spreads through the air and attacks the lungs.
As a chaplain, it is her practice to look everyone she meets in the eyes: patients, doctors, nurses, all of the staff. She distills the nature of her work to a single word. Presence. When she talks to a patient, there is nothing else: no ticking clock, no text message, no cellphone, no personal trauma. There is only the person in front of her.
Her COVID-19 moment was different. Even though hospital management soon made it clear that chaplains were no longer permitted into the isolation wards, Zitelman struggled with her reaction.
“I wasn’t my best chaplain in that moment,” she says.
After COVID-19 came to their hospital, the chaplains gathered and figured out how they would do their jobs in this new world.
Since they could not enter the rooms of patients battling the virus, they prepared packets for each. The packet includes a card with Psalm 136: God’s love endures forever. It also includes a little metal figure and an inspirational fact. For example, a small metallic bumblebee with a card explaining that the bee’s body is too heavy for its wings, it should not be able to fly. And yet it is “God’s proof that the impossible can be.”
There is a message from the chaplains: “Our Spiritual Care team at Froedtert West Bend are praying for you during your stay here. … If you would like to talk with one of our Chaplains via phone please let your nurse know and she will page us.”
Zitelman works at Froedtert Menomonee Falls Hospital and also at Froedtert West Bend Hospital.
The chaplains figured out different groups in the hospital; each chaplain would focus on one.
Zitelman chose the people few ever notice.
The people who clean the linens.
The environment services staff who clean and disinfect the rooms, who must work isolation areas wearing a mask, face shield and gown — just like the doctors and nurses.
The transport people who take patients from their rooms for X-rays, scans and other tests, wheeling them onto elevators, down long twisting hallways, then back to their rooms.
The people who work in the cafeteria and in the administrative jobs.
“We didn’t have a lot of consults,” Zitelman says of the days since COVID-19 arrived. “What we had were a lot of lonely people and scared staff and the invisible staff. … Maybe we’re rediscovering the people at the hospital who have needed to be discovered all along. The support staff.”
Since COVID-19 came, the hospital hallways have been so much quieter it feels eerie sometimes. As she walks, Zitelman tells the staff: “Thank you for being here. Somehow you were called to this moment.”
Some are afraid and she tells them to imagine themselves wrapped in a warm cocoon “and God is in there with you, or whoever your holy person is.”
She gives away polished stones, some shaped like bluebirds.
She has made compassionate care calls to relatives of the sick, people who cannot visit their loved ones. She knows what a shock it is. This is the first time the hospital has told people they cannot visit.
But it’s not all sadness. Zitelman witnesses scenes of joy as well.
“I’ve seen nurses so happy to have been able to do all of the things they’ve done,” she says, “and the patient is better and they’re being moved because they are no longer in danger of dying anymore.”
You don’t hear staff complaining, Zitelman says, “but loving each other through this.”
She talks to older patients in the hospital who do not have the virus. An 80-year-old woman recently told her, “I just hope the young people are OK.”
There are times when she phones the patients in isolation. “I think you might be feeling bored or lonely,” she says.
Patients tell her stories of fear and sadness, but she has a knack for seeing the other side. She’ll listen to their story and say, “I guess you were stronger than you thought.”
The chaplain has her moments of sadness. She tries to limit her tears, because she always thinks, It’s not about me. But she cries when she learns a patient she’s connected with has died.
She has had to make peace with her initial fear of the pandemic, a fear shared by many. The virus was so new. And still, there is no vaccine, no proven treatment.
“We could stay home in quarantine,” says Bill Zitelman, her husband of 32 years, “but every day she goes to work. I’m proud and I’m frightened for her.”
Randee Zitelman knows now that one chaplain cannot take on all of the fear and pain herself. It is too much for any one person to carry.
“Even if you were the rescuer of the world,” she says, “I don’t think you’d make it very far with everybody’s stories on your back.”
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