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Military chaplains emphasize spiritual health during COVID-19 pandemic

Soldier in front of military sculpture In a time when many are dealing with anxiety and fear over a new disease with no cure available, comfort can come in the form of spiritual wellness. Spiritual caregivers like Navy Lt. Nahum Melendez (pictured), a chaplain at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, help patients and their families nurture that spiritual wellness. (U.S. Navy photo by MC2 (SW/AW) Kurtis A. Hatcher, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center)

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In a time when many are dealing with anxiety and fear over a new disease with no cure available, comfort can come in the form of spiritual wellness. Spiritual health is a domain of Total Force Fitness that focuses on beliefs and practices. The goal is to build connectedness through hope, meaning, and purpose. Spiritual caregivers like the chaplains of the military help people nurture that connectedness. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic when physical proximity is limited, chaplains are getting creative with how they offer spiritual support.

“There’s so much from our spiritual traditions that assume an in-person connection,” said Pastor (Cmdr.) David Jeltema, a Navy chaplain at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. “To suddenly be in an environment where the way we operate has changed so radically and realize that the way to care for patients is actually to maintain a distance is a real shift in how we deliver care.”

New rules at WRNMMC and other hospitals in the Military Health System severely limit who can come in contact with patients, whether the patient has COVID-19 or not. Chaplains and family members of patients communicate from doorways and through phone calls instead of offering comfort from inside a hospital room. According to Jeltema, patients, family members, and even hospital staff are feeling the effects of the lack in closeness.

“This is a very isolating disease that we are dealing with,” Jeltema said. “When people are not able to experience things like acts of hospitality, I think they find that there’s a void in their lives.”

WRNMMC’s chaplains have found new ways to fill that void and offer spiritual support without direct proximity. Chaplains are taking a more proactive approach to contacting family members of patients and meeting their spiritual needs. WRNMMC’s chaplains also have an official Walter Reed Pastoral Care Facebook page as an initiative that has opened connection between community members, staff, and outpatients. The page extends the voluntary broadcasting of daily and weekly services to hospital in-patients. Virtual communication for both patients and family members has helped the chaplains reach more people for spiritual care and stay efficient.

“As spiritual caregivers, we are tasked to find creative ways to nurture,” said Navy Chaplain (Lt.) Nahum Melendez, who also works at WRNMMC. “We are hopeful that in the absence of physical touch there can be a different, transcendental touching of the spirit instead.”

These creative ways to nurture spiritual health extend beyond organized vocations and religions. Both Jeltema and Melendez emphasize that, at its core, spiritual health centers on what gives people meaning.

“I think that spiritual health is really about having a good sense of identity of who we are and what our purpose is in life,” Jeltema said, “and what is important is what we value.”

These values can be structured through religious practices. But, spirituality can also take the form of time spent with family and friends. Activities like yoga and meditation are rising in popularity in hospitals. Chaplains like Melendez use hand held labyrinth exercises as an innovative practice during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Melendez guides patients to walk these symbolic paths, meandering yet purposeful, and use them as tools to develop the spiritual life while isolated from community support.

Jeltema is hopeful that people battling fear during the pandemic will explore their spiritual health to ease that fear. Whether through religion or purposeful practice, Jeltema finds that connecting to the world is important for overall health. Nearly every hospital throughout the MHS has one or more chaplains to provide spiritual support to patients and their families. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues in the world, beneficiaries and families are encouraged to reach out to these spiritual caregivers to find a path that works for them.

“It's a real test of our spiritual health, when we look at what we do with fear,” Jeltema said. “This is a really good time to look outside of oneself to see how that fear can be overcome. There's a lot of wisdom from a lot of different spiritual traditions that I think one can find in a time like this.”

Melendez agrees, highlighting that community is a great place to find spirituality. While gathering in-person is not on the table, checking in is a way for people to make sure that their loved ones stay spiritually healthy.

“We can all help one another to reach that consequential state of mind and soul,” Melendez said, “by simply asking what it is that gives you meaning and purpose in life, and encouraging each other to do just that.”

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