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Caregiver trauma

Post-traumatic stress is something that is felt by health care workers across the board, including Rev. Joseph Choi, a senior chaplain at St. Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, CA. Though the hospital only treats around 15 coronavirus patients a day, St. Jude has restricted visitors and turned their sepsis unit into a COVID-19 unit. Choi, who had previously been assigned to the sepsis unit, was suddenly ministering to coronavirus patients day in and day out.

“Just doing a self-checkup, I probably have some of the symptoms like nightmares,” Choi explained as he looked away and breathed in deeply. “Feelings of helplessness and extreme sadness, recurring memories of a particular patient or family member.”

“Anyone who is in this field will eventually end up with minor or major caregiver trauma. I would probably qualify for a lot of those symptoms.”

PTSD is often linked to people who have served in the military, but as one psychologist explains, “PTSD is a well-established consequence for health care workers who worked through deadly pandemics.” Hospital workers, who are constantly being exposed to the virus and are witnessing increasing amounts of death, have had to put grieving on the backburner while they dutifully press on. Once the adrenaline dies down, they will be forced to confront the lingering psychological effects of the pandemic.

Reaching out to others for support is vital in the healing process. In the beginning, Chan shut down in response to the deluge of devastation around her. “Pray that I can cope healthily and can really process before God,” Chan wrote to a friend in April. “I feel like I can’t quiet down, and I also feel like running away. I know I can’t offer myself fully when I’m so overwhelmed.”

After processing her emotions with her friend, Chan began taking daily walks to pray and unload her thoughts and feelings to God before starting her day at the hospital.

“God is the counselor who untangles my thoughts and accepts my emotions and my whole being,” Chan said. “God is present with me, and that really helps me to be present with others.”

Serving Diverse Populations

In addition to ministering to patients and staff, Choi is also a certified Korean translator. In a region with a sizable Korean population, that skill has become invaluable in helping Korean immigrant patients and their families who do not know how to navigate complicated medical concerns in a time of mounting distress.

In one instance, Choi was called to visit an actively dying Korean patient. The wife and their young son were allowed to visit him before he was taken off the ventilator, but due to their limited English, they could not communicate with the nurses. Choi stepped in to translate, explaining the procedures for seeing their loved one and how to properly dispose of their personal protective equipment. Right before the wife and son went in, Choi gathered them outside the window while he spoke Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer in Korean over them. After they came out, Choi had a brief moment to speak with them.

The family was not able to actively attend church, nor did they have a pastor.

“A lot of those in the immigrant communities who don’t speak English well are not able to go to church because of the type of work they do,” Choi said. “Which is quite unfortunate.” These immigrants often work during the weekends and at odd hours in various places, including restaurants, import/export companies, and clothing manufacturers.

For that short time, Choi took on a pastoral role and offered whatever care he could give them. In fact, the Korean language lends itself to allowing people to view chaplains more like pastors because there is no word for “chaplain.” Whenever he encounters Korean patients and their family members, he introduces himself as a pastor and finds himself naturally fitting into the shepherding role of a minister.

“Taking on that pastor role might not be for everybody,” Choi said. “But in the Korean community, because there is such a strong tie to the Korean immigrants and to the church, that type of role-taking does seem to work.”

Among Korean immigrant patients, Choi has observed a power dynamic at play between the less-educated immigrant and the skilled doctor, where the immigrant patient — particularly an elderly one — will take what the doctor says at face value, even though they might have lingering questions or concerns. Though doctors can have a call-in translator service, it’s not as effective as having an in-person translator. So when Choi shows up, he often acts as a translator of language as well as a translator of their hearts, helping them parse through their medical questions with the doctor while also reading and tending to their spiritual needs.

“The fact that I can speak their language adds to the fact that I am able to help those who are vulnerable,” Choi explained. “When scripture talks about the widows and orphans and taking care of them — sociologically speaking, those [immigrants] are the most vulnerable. They don’t have any safety nets.”

Read the full story by Joyce Chu here