Alum Stories

Ministry in a Time of Pandemics: Claudia Lee Dorsch

Claudia Dorsch

Claudia Lee Dorsch

Master of Arts in Pastoral Care and Counseling, 2018
Hospital Chaplain, UnityPoint Health
Dubuque, Iowa

When Public Health of Dubuque County announced the first case of COVID-19 on March 19, 2020, the visitor restrictions took effect in my hospital shortly after. Patients could not have any visitors, including family members, friends, Eucharistic ministers, and local clergy people. While many healthcare facilities even suspended in-person spiritual care to patients in quarantine or in isolation rooms, I started visiting patients with COVID-19 after I received appropriate personal protective equipment.

The fear of dying alone was overwhelming to everyone. People experienced helplessness and hopelessness. I recalled telling a dying patient repeatedly that I would be there for her during the final moment with hand holding. I realized the perceived abandonment and loneliness were the lies from my ego. My patient was not alone, and I was never alone. The fear closed us off to recognize that we were in this together.

It appeared to many that all doors were closed due to the pandemic; God opened many doors for me to enter, including allowing me to meet patients who have no religious affiliation and who struggled to make sense of their illness and suffering. Due to HIPPA concerns, medical staff could not be a part of the virtual visits using social media or video conference tools for medical discussion or updates. I was able to utilize telehealth programs to initiate family meetings with medical staff, even for the bereavement rituals at the time of transition.

During the Ethics Committee meetings, our members discussed the moral distress and ethical dilemma on rationing scarce resources, such as who might get the last ICU bed or the ventilator. Dubuque is a small city with about 60,000 residents, yet the hospital serves the Tri-state area with a population over 200,000. Communication was critical for the patient care. The priority of my ministry became bridging the communication gap. I spent more time providing emotional and spiritual support to the medical staff and established a staff support program known as “Code Lavender.”

My seminary years prepared me to be resourceful and to advocate for my hospital staff, patients, families, and clergy people. The diversity-inclusive nature of Garrett-Evangelical made me acutely aware of the vulnerable minorities in my community as Dubuque has less than five percent of non-White population, and Roman Catholic is the dominant denomination. Some of my older patients, family members, and their faith leaders learned to cope with the temporary separation; for others, the separation felt eternal. The pandemic has closed the usual ways of human connection, but the love of God invited us to be creative and bold in reaching people beyond the normal boundaries.

On the anniversary date of our first COVID-19 admission, I shared this statement:

“…We also mourn the loss of those patients. They are family members and friends. Each one had made contribution to our community in their own ways. We join those families and friends in their grief as each loss struck our core for who we are and why we do what we do…May the peace of God be with us all.”