Alumna Dawn Balduf – Leading with Compassion during COVID

For Chaplain Dawn Balduf, the coming of COVID-19 has created both heart breaking challenges as well as unexpected opportunities.

A 2017 graduate from Winebrenner’s Master of Arts in Family Ministry program, Dawn serves full time as a chaplain at Mercy Health – St. Charles Hospital in Oregon, Ohio. (She is also the part time assistant pastor at St. John’s United Church of Christ in Genoa.) Before the pandemic, Dawn spent most of her time with patients, at their bedside for a conversation, a word of encouragement, and prayer.

COVID-19 disrupted this simple and yet profoundly meaningful practice. For the health and safety of both patients and staff, physical contact between a patient and his or her chaplain was restricted. Whereas Dawn was used to bedside visits and doorway conversations, she now reached out to patients by telephone. It is not the traditional way of caring for the patients, she noted; however, patients still found solace in her words, the tone of her voice, and in their shared prayers.

Because visitor restrictions limited the amount of family members permitted to visit their loved ones, Dawn had to adjust her ministry to them as well. Dawn initiated calls to the families and cared for them over the phone. While the medical teams provide clinical updates, Dawn and her fellow chaplains worked to create an emotional and spiritual bridge between the patients and their loved ones.

Dawn shared that while she knew the precautions were necessary, it caused her heartache to watch a family lose a loved one in an environment when physical interaction was limited. “One of the hardest things I’ve done is to use the Zoom platform when a patient dies,” she said, noting that the teams did the best they could for the patients they served: “We get everything set up, get the family on Zoom, and a nurse or an aide takes the equipment in. The family can see them and talk to them. This was a completely new experience for all of us.” In such poignant moments, Dawn prayed, “Lord lead me. Help me know how can I minister to people who are hurting and confused and fearful.” Dawn is humbled to have received cards and phone calls from family members who are ever so grateful that they could be with their loved ones (by Zoom) as they passed away.

Dawn and her colleagues understood that they were working during an unprecedented time in health care. As the pandemic grew and cases began to arrive at St. Charles, Dawn admitted she became “edgy.” Although provided with appropriate guidance and materials to stay safe, each day she prayed for strength and that she would not contract the virus nor take it home to her family. Despite her own fears, Dawn persevered in her purpose and mission at the hospital. She frequently took prayer walks, placing a (well-sanitized) hand of comfort on those in her path: the housekeeping staff, nurses, therapists, and aides. She empathized with them and prayed for protection and the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit. Dawn muses that this intense, shared COVID experience has deepened relationships between employees and drawn them closer together as a community.

The pandemic has reminded Dawn just how complex pastoral care can be. “I don’t know what I would do without my training from Winebrenner. A minister needs that core from the social sciences combined with ministry skills to do what I do now.” Certainly, God is using her many gifts – active listening, empathy, compassion, and perseverance – and is enabling her to be His voice of love and comfort, even in the midst of  trying circumstances.