During Pam Johnson’s final moments, Jeff Challberg performed an anointing and led her family in prayers. Then – while members of her family watched via video conferencing technology – he sat down at her bedside to hold her hand.
Challberg is a hospital chaplain serving people at M Health Fairview Bethesda Hospital. For years, his simple and profound acts have helped families like the Johnsons find peace during the passing of a loved one. But the arrival of COVID-19 and subsequent precautions to reduce the spread of the disease have led to changes in Challberg’s work, and have made it more difficult for families to be together.
To address these challenges, Challberg and his colleagues have turned to video conferencing technology and other new adaptations in order to continue providing for families’ spiritual and emotional needs.
“Like every area of our lives, the pandemic has somewhat changed the way that we’re able to provide spiritual care,” said Challberg. “But our care has been constant, and we’ve held onto the same principles for the people in our care.”
When the pandemic began and Bethesda Hospital was converted into the state’s only dedicated COVID-19 hospital, Challberg volunteered to serve there and in other COVID-19 units across the M Health Fairview system. He also holds a faculty position in M Health Fairview's Clinical Pastoral Education program and helps educate new chaplains and spiritual care professionals.
It was at Bethesda that Challberg first met Pam. Diagnosed with COVID-19, she was on a ventilator in an intensive care unit (ICU) at the hospital. For 10 days, he visited her room repeatedly, each time donning a face shield, mask, isolation gown and other personal protective equipment (PPE). During their first visit, Challberg asked Pam if he could pray with her. Unable to speak due to the ventilator, she responded with a thumbs-up gesture.
That kind of humanity and warmth was not out of character for Pam, according to her brother Tom Johnson. She was always present for her siblings and their children at every family milestone, big or small. She was an animal lover and cared for many over the years. And for more than three decades before her retirement in 2014, she worked hard in hospital housekeeping, supporting colleagues and their patients in the Twin Cities.
“She was an angel on Earth,” Tom said.
On the day she died, Challberg connected with Pam’s family through an iPad from her hospital room so that her family could see her and be with her in spirit as Challberg performed the anointing at their request. They prayed together, and Challberg held Pam’s hand for 40 minutes.
“We could feel the compassion that surrounded Pam and felt so comforted by Chaplain Challberg’s presence,” Tom said. “He made it possible for our family to be there for her emotionally and spiritually. We’ll always appreciate having that time with her.”
Challberg acknowledges the weight of his work during COVID-19. Though in-person gatherings would be preferable at such times – and some exceptions are allowed for end of life care – visiting a COVID-19 care unit could put family members, other patients, and hospital staff at risk. Video conferencing offers a safe and compassionate alternative for families to gather, discuss end-of-life arrangements and grieve.
"It’s not easy for families to face these moments without the benefit of gathering together,” said Challberg. “We do everything possible to provide a sense of peace and connection while keeping loved ones safe, so our patients know they’re not alone.”
“This is also an example of an old discipline of spiritual care adapting to an amazing, new technological capacity in a critical moment,” Challberg said.