Staff Chaplain, Northwestern Medicine
It was March 11, the day that the pandemic was announced by the World Health Organization, when Sharon Dobbs became a full-time chaplain at Northwestern Medicine. After almost 15 years of preparation—as a Minister of Care serving the University of Chicago Hospitals and St. Thomas the Apostle homebound—Sharon Dobbs was ready to be designated an “essential worker.”
Like other “spiritual first responders,” Sharon re-committed to her chaplain ministry that day, a joint decision made with her husband, despite personal health risks, to continue ministering inside the hospital. Sharon’s team was called on to respond to the many challenges of this radically changed environment. Visitors were no longer allowed, and Chaplains moved to supporting patient’s families by phone. Volunteers were disbanded including the large group who brought communion from Holy Name, and others who visited patients with music, dogs and reading materials, and assisted patients with the legal healthcare documents. Sharon’s “leap of faith” decision was compounded by the heavy atmosphere surrounding downtown Chicago following the civil unrest in the wake of racial injustice across the city with local shops around the hospital boarded up, and her commuting to the center of the city requiring circuitous routes and stops. Sharon ministers daily not only to patients, but also to beleaguered floor staff through resiliency sessions, open daily prayer and listening services, and connecting with the medical units on especially difficult days. Sharon and her team have prioritized maintaining the spiritual wellbeing of nurses, radiologists, lab technicians and other healthcare workers behind the scenes, many of whom are risking their lives to provide care to patients.
In her daily ministry, Sharon recalls a mantra from her studies at CTU: “Always make sure that theology is relevant and in the present.” Sharon utilizes spiritual communion prayers adapted by a colleague to make them more relevant in light of the restrictions brought about by COVID-19. Spiritual Communion is a Christian practice of desiring union with Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. It is used in this case by individuals who cannot receive Holy Communion. “Resiliency rounding” is a regular practice for Sharon which includes guided meditation and stretching, in addition to prayer and accompaniment for staff.
While Sharon finds it challenging to suppress the human instinct to use physical touch to console and reverence, she has embraced technology. “The resistance to put a hand on someone’s shoulder…just the physical touch of comfort is such a hard thing to back away from.”
This could be in part because Sharon was an early adopter of technology in the study of ministry, spending three years in Hong Kong while pursuing CTU’s MAPS online degree. She reflected, “I am grateful for all I have studied and learned at CTU that has helped prepare me for this work and allows me to walk the Gospel message.”
Drawing further on liturgy classes at CTU, Sharon recalls the practical applications of her training in re-shaping the chapels so they could be properly sanitized, providing disposable prayer rugs, and developing “care pods,” portable, individual self-care kits for staff when we had to park our mobile Care Cart due to sanitation concerns. She sees finding the sacred in the mundane as part of her mission. “We can create sacred space wherever we are.”
In Professor Michael Andraos’ class we read an article published by Professor Roger Schroeder, SVD where I learned that each time you enter a patient’s room or a unit, you are entering someone else’s garden. You are called to look around, observe what’s changed, recognize the need and respect the individual’s spiritual circumstances.” Whether that is done with an iPad, a telephone, or behind a red line put on the floor to indicate a safe distance, Sharon is committed to this critical work.