Pandemic prompts changes to Duluth hospital chaplaincy, end-of-life care

At St. Luke’s and Essentia Health, chaplains are conducting virtual visits for family members and adjusting end-of-life care.

Father John Petrich (from left), staff chaplain Dulce Proud, and chaplaincy director Tab Baumgartner pose outside of St. Luke’s Thursday. (Steve Kuchera /

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the face of hospital chaplaincy.

A role that’s been integral in providing support, care and connection — at the bedside or in the waiting room — is even more crucial as safety measures prompt visitor restrictions, changing practices such as end-of-life care.

Visitation is restricted at Essentia Health and St. Luke’s in Duluth. For the most part, there are no visitors unless patients are actively dying. In those cases, compassion arrangements are made for generally one person, and that's true of patients infected with the new coronavirus and those who are not, St. Luke’s chaplaincy director Tab Baumgartner said.

At both hospitals, chaplains now conduct virtual visits for family members. They’re helping set up iPads for video chatting. They’re taking calls from outside clergy who are unable to meet members of their congregations in person. They’re conducting care over the phone, or in person, wearing face masks.

It requires an added level of listening to pick up on other cues, said Stacey Jutila, chaplaincy services director at Essentia.


Stacey Jutila is the director of Chaplaincy and Grief Support at Essentia Health in Duluth. (Clint Austin /

And where before it would be common to hold hands with a patient, Jutila may ask that person to hold their own hand while she says a prayer for them. They're trying to come as close as they can to important human connections, she said.

“It’s hard feeling the isolation and vulnerability when you're in the hospital, and then to do that by yourself ... there is that element of connection that's missing," said the Rev. MaryAnne Korsch, a chaplain at Essentia.

Creating a meaningful connection over the phone, without eye contact and body language, can be difficult. When that’s missing, Korsch hones in on subtleties, like tones of voice.

At St. Luke’s, the three chaplains meet COVID-19 patients with proper personal protective equipment: masks, gloves and a gown.

“It does make you wonder — if we're putting (ourselves) at risk. But I'm at no more risk than the medical staff,” said the Rev. John Petrich, of St. Luke’s.

Chaplains are also standing in for family and escorting visitors to patients who are declining.


Typically, when a patient is dying, they’re surrounded by family and loved ones. There are in-person goodbyes. Now, physical contact is avoided.

“If a patient has died and I'm gloved, there might be some gentle touch ... at some point to affirm them," Baumgartner said.

Even though patients are alone, there's a different quality of connectedness with those who aren't present, he added.

"When you see someone put a phone onto someone's ear, or they're able to show their image to a family member, words don't describe that, and there's a power there,” said the Rev. Dulce Proud, St. Luke’s chaplain.

And for those whose families can't come, many find comfort in knowing that a clergy member is present, Petrich said.

In those spaces, chaplains are the caring, compassionate people bearing witness to the end of life.

“It's a more sober and profound moment,” Baumgartner said.

During end-of-life care, chaplains are "a calm, non-anxious presence," Jutila said.


“We can be that person to affirm that your loved one is resting peacefully," she said.

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