TUPELO • Rev. Dr. Don Simmons, Director of Pastoral Care for North Mississippi Medical Center-Tupelo, believes in the power of prayer.
“I see miracles every day,” he said. “I really do. I’m in awe that I get the opportunity to see those things.”
The 57-year-old Louisville, Mississippi, native is entering his third year as a chaplain at the hospital. He and his team are tasked with providing spiritual care for patients, their families and fellow health care workers, no matter their faith background. The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t changed that.
What has changed is the volume and emotional weight of what Simmons deals with each day. There’s more urgency now.
Families often have to make heart-wrenching decisions regarding their loved ones, and Simmons is there to help. Some days, that’s talking with a family representative inside the hospital; other days, it’s praying with a group in the parking lot.
Simmons often first sees patients in the emergency room, where they might wind up in the critical care or COVID-19 unit for a week or two, sometimes even a month. All the while, Simmons and his staff counsel and pray with the patient’s family for healing. The bonds they form make even minor victories feel monumental.
“To see them walk out of here, it’s incredibly emotional,” Simmons said. “We celebrate those victories because it doesn’t always go that way.”
Chaplains mark recoveries with a prayer of praise, Simmons said. The type of prayer depends on the patient’s faith background, tradition or denomination, of course, and their own faith leaders sometimes join by phone to share in the moment with them.
COVID-19 caused a dramatic increase in hospital staff requesting times to talk and pray with chaplains at NMMC. From administrators down to individuals cleaning hospital rooms, health care workers have dealt with staffing and budgetary challenges coupled with personal stress.
The size of the chaplaincy team at NMMC-Tupelo is currently limited to a handful of core staff. Pre-pandemic, there would typically have been 20 to 30 trained volunteer chaplains to help with patients regularly.
“Our volunteers right now aren’t able to come in,” Simmons said. “Many of them are older, often retired clergy, that we very much depend on. And right now, we really miss them.”
Facing a crisis
Being a chaplain isn’t a 9-to-5 job. When families come together to make tough decisions about a loved one, it’s typically in the late afternoon or evening, and Simmons does his best to provide care for everyone.
The pandemic has taken a personal toll on all health care workers, and chaplains are not immune.
“I have decided that I need to start focusing a lot more on self care,” Simmons said. “I just have to. With Thanksgiving and Christmas surges, I have let my own self care slide a little bit, so I’m trying to get better at those kinds of things.”
Simmons worked through the Christmas holiday weekend to feel like he was helping the situation. Otherwise, it would have been just him and his wife sitting at home.
“Right down the street, on Christmas Eve, I rode by a house that had about 20 cars in the yard and I’m thinking ‘I’m probably going to see one of those people soon,’” Simmons said.
That’s the current reality for health care workers, and according to Simmons, the subject matter of conversations with other hospital personnel has largely changed this year.
“The stressor, whatever it is normally that is causing them to seek pastoral care, is usually something that they can take a long weekend and get away from or take a deep breath and escape,” Simmons said. “You can’t go anywhere in the world and avoid something related to the challenges of COVID.”
And with the chaplain’s office being located on the same floor as the COVID-19 unit, the virus is never far away.
Where he’s supposed to be
Simmons never thought he would work in the health care field.
“At one time in my career, I remember very clearly telling someone on a mission trip, ‘I appreciate all those folks that work volunteering as nurses and doctors, but I just don’t like hospitals,’” Simmons said. “Now I’m in the room every day with patients, and I help a lot of families say goodbye. I know the Lord put me where I’m supposed to be.”
While working with COVID-19 patients, Simmons wears a double mask with a face shield and stands in the doorway, not entering the room. He accommodates families in any way that he can, often praying for and with patients.
Often, the patients Simmons visits can’t talk or will be on a ventilator, but Simmons will recite the Lord’s Prayer in their presence.
“I’m not sure how conscious they are, but sometimes they’ll start mouthing it with me,” Simmons said. “This happens ... I won’t say a lot ... but sometimes it will happen.”
It’s easy to get attached to the patients and their families while being there with them during their struggle.
“We laugh together and celebrate success, and we cry together and mourn with the families,” Simmons said. “It’s an emotional roller coaster sometimes, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Simmons credits his team, especially Lowell Walker, NMMC’s staff chaplain, for helping him make it through the year. Simmons called Walker a “rock” for members of the chaplaincy.
He’s also felt blessed during the pandemic to have a proactive administration at NMMC that addresses challenges and understands that “you can’t separate the physical and the spiritual” in health care.
“There is a growing understanding of the importance of spiritual care alongside health care, as part of the health care experience – caring for the body, mind and spirit,” Simmons said.
Another major source of support has been Tupelo’s faith community. He has received calls throughout the pandemic from different pastors and priests in the region asking how he and Walker were doing and offering support.
“It doesn’t hurt to be in the Bible Belt,” Simmons said with a laugh.
One particular verse of scripture that gets Simmons through a lot, and has certainly helped him during the pandemic, is Mark 10:14, which reads: Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
“The reason that one really hits home with me is that everyone that we see and care for is a child of God,” Simmons said. “They’re all his little children.”
Simmons has received his first dose of Pfizer’s COVID vaccine and said receiving it makes him optimistic that it will mark the beginning of a return to some sense of normalcy.
“Hopefully, I can start spending more time with my mother and feel a little more comfortable with it,” Simmons said. “I have a mother that is in her late 70s, and I haven’t spent a lot of time with her because I was always concerned with ‘What if?’ Now I can at least be a little bit more at peace, spending time even though we’ll still social distance, still wear that mask.”
Because they work in such proximity with COVID-19 patients, Simmons and other chaplains in Mississippi were included in the first phase of the vaccine rollout, which targets health care personnel and long-term care residents.
“I remain hopeful,” Simmons said. “I think as a chaplain you have to.”
After the pandemic began, he couldn’t help but think back to a paper he wrote to complete his master’s degree in history from the University of Mississippi on the topic of the bubonic plague and the impact it had on the church.
“In the end, after a lot of conflict, controversy and challenges, the church came out of it stronger,” Simmons said. “I think the faith community in general, no matter what faith or denomination, will come out of this much more clearly focused.”