Chaplain makes sure COVID-19 patients never die alone

COVID-19 patients treated in the ICU.
COVID-19 patients treated in the ICU.(AU Health)
Published: Apr. 9, 2021 at 11:35 AM MDT
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - Saying goodbye through the glass is one of the toughest things Penrose Chaplain, Theresa Gregoire, has had to witness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

She was there as an entire family stood outside a quarantined patient’s room to see them for the last time. It still brings tears to her eyes when she describes what happened after the nurse pulled the curtain open.

“What was just so touching to me was one of the nurses ... The nurse went and took the picture of the family. She put it on the patient’s heart,” Gregoire said. “And it was like they were right there, and they had family members call in.”

The staff also played “Journey,” one of the patient’s favorite bands, so they could go peacefully to the sound of familiar music.

Sadly, thousands of families have had experiences like this. Due to the high transmission rate of the novel coronavirus, hospitals across the country have restricted visiting hours and policies. Some families are also too afraid to come in to the hospital.

A special calling to help people at their most vulnerable times

Gregoire has been a chaplain at Penrose Hospital for 20 years, giving support to patients, families, and staff. The pandemic has been one of the most trying years of her career because so many of her patients are alone.

As hard as those moments are, she says her job is a gift, and one she feels called to do.

“To know that I could help usher them into the presence of God is a real privilege,” Gregoire said.

When the pandemic first started in early 2020, there were no family members allowed into Penrose Hospital. That has since changed, but patients who have active and contagious case of COVID-19 are still isolated.

Gregoire makes sure those patients have in-person support and care, even though it comes at a risk to her.

“It was scary when in the beginning we didn’t have the PPE we needed,” she said. “But the more I did it, the easier it became ... and then it was like, no, you know, I’m just praying God’s protection. I’m taking all the precautions. I’m doing everything I can do.”

She talks with the patients, holds the phone up to their ear, and holds their hand when loved ones can’t.

For families, Gregoire tries to give each one special care and attention. She remembers each of their names to send hand-written cards. When a patient passes away in the ICU, she also gets a strip of the heartbeat to give to families. It’s something that was done for her when her dad passed away that made a difference in her grieving and healing.

Keith Earl, a Creative Services Producer at KKTV, who lost his mom to COVID-19 in April 2020, received a strip of his mom’s heartbeat from Gregoire. He later went on to get a tattoo of it on his arm because it meant so much to him.

Hospital staff bands together to persevere through the grief of losing patients

It’s been an emotionally taxing year for Gregoire and hospital staff, who say death has been so much more frequent. At one point during the pandemic, Gregoire had eight deaths to attend to in only two days. Friends pray for her to get through these hard times, and she turns to baking to help relieve the stress of it.

Watching her colleagues has been hard, too. As part of her role at Penrose, she provides support to staff who have been working nonstop to save lives.

“It just broke my heart to watch them work so hard, and they would say to me, ‘We’ve worked so hard to save these people and then they die,’ and I would keep reminding them, you know, we can’t always cure, but we can always care. And they really cared. They cared so much.”

Gregoire says even on the toughest days and weeks, she gets through it with the grace of God and prayers from her friends.

“You keep going,” she said. “Because it’s important to show up and to be there for those who need you.”

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