Chaplain has vast experience with grief – and coronavirus

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

Wes Sedlacek is well-acquainted with grief.
And after months of COVID pandemic, the natural response of humans toward loss of anything held dear and resulting expressions of anger, anxiety and sadness are things he’s dealt with regularly as the chaplain at Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital.
Sedlacek sometimes explains that grief is a response normal people can have to an abnormal situation. As a chaplain, it’s a phrase he sometimes uses when he does trauma debriefings, but he uses it in regards to COVID also because it seems appropriate.
“I’ve tried to be sure people are aware that they are grieving, with so many losses we’ve all experienced over the past year – not just deaths,” he said. “Sometimes it helps just to name it as grief.”
Sedlacek has been a chaplain at Samaritan Health for 15 years and has seen a lot during that time, but COVID adds a new dimension, particularly when it comes to end-of-life moments.
When the hospital was initially closed to outside visitors, assisting the families became more challenging for him, he said.
“In many cases, when someone is actively dying, they’re usually less responsive,” he said. “So it’s not so much about who they see, but what they hear. Not having familiar voices talking to them or telling stories at the bedside was a great loss for that period of time.
“I had one situation where I stood with a family outside the building, looking in the window as their loved one took that final breath. That’s one of those memories that’s going to stick with me for a while.”
Current restrictions now allow one visitor per day for inpatients, and a few visitors at end-of-life. As a member of the treatment team, Sedlacek can still visit general patients directly, but is limited when it comes to patients with COVID.
“We have tried to reduce unnecessary exposure to COVID patients and are continuing to moderate our PPE supply, so there are times that I have simply called into a patient’s room and talked on the phone,” he said. “Thankfully, a good number of the times I’ve done that it’s been for a room with a glass door so the patient and I can still see each other.”
Conference calls and Zoom or FaceTime have also been utilized by family members as a way to connect to isolated loved ones, he said.
Sedlacek knows people are getting sad, frustrated and tired because of COVID, he said, and he sees the fatigue wearing on them as the pandemic approaches its one-year mark.
“As you might imagine, in the public arena there are many different responses to COVID,” he said. “Some people I’ve experienced have been very aware of it, taking severe precautions and limiting their chance of exposure. Others I’ve spoken to have expressed their frustration with restrictions and have trivialized the virus. I can tell you, though, the virus is real and people can die with it.”
Sedlacek was born and raised in Portland, where he first earned a bachelor of arts in history and theater from the University of Portland. He later moved to Texas to attend seminary and earn his master of divinity degree.
Both he and his wife Carol are ordained priests in the Episcopal Church.
They moved to Lebanon in 2002 so Carol could serve as the lead priest at St. Martin’s Episcopal in Lebanon and St. Francis Episcopal in Sweet Home.
Wes serves as an associate at the Church of the Good Samaritan in Corvallis, but when he was looking for work in 2005, he was offered a chaplaincy position at Samaritan Albany General Hospital.
“I was hesitant to take it due to a previous medical phobia, where I’d get high anxiety even entering a medical facility,” he said.
He agreed to take the job on a temporary basis until another church opening came along, he said. That was his plan.
“Within a few weeks, I felt instead like it was where God had called me to be,” he said. “Carol even noticed a change in my demeanor, describing me as being happier and more energetic.”
Sedlacek had once heard a pastor say that it doesn’t feel like work when one is using their gifts in a job, and that seemed to be the case for him, he said.
So he approached the hospital administration, they removed his interim status and made him their chaplain, and he became board-certified through the Association of Professional Chaplains.
He solely served Albany for his first seven years, then started covering Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital as well.
Sedlacek and his team also assist emergent needs for the new Samaritan Treatment and Recovery Services inpatient program and Samaritan Evergreen Hospice House in Albany, in addition to serving both hospitals.
A chaplain’s job is to serve the needs of a patient and their family, Sedlacek explained. Chaplains help with spiritual rituals such as prayer, baptism and funerals, and assist with the spiritual and emotional side of health care for patients and their families.
“We spend time being present, listening and exploring deeper questions,” he said. “Sometimes sick people struggle with the meaning of their illness, sometimes they have to face choices they’ve made, sometimes they want to make amends with someone before they die. These are the types of things with which a chaplain can assist.”
Even staff and caregivers will approach Sedlacek for their own well-being at times, he said. An experience in the emergency room can be traumatic for them, or caregivers often experience similar pain and suffering as their patient and family member may feel.
In addition to working at the two hospitals, Sedlacek also visits clinics in Lebanon and Sweet Home to talk with people about advanced medical planning such as advance directives and end-of-life directives.
While serving others in a spiritual, emotional, mental and medical aspect during the pandemic, Sedlacek stays focused on doing what he can to prevent the possible spread of COVID. But he said he decided early on he would not let himself live with a burden of fear.
“Due to my faith, I have a sense of comfort that I’ll be fine no matter what happens, whether I live or die,” he said. “I just try to encourage people to be gentle with themselves and others during this strange and stressful time.”