Christopher Keith’s 20,000 steps start at 3 a.m.
He climbs from bed, careful not to wake his wife, and logs the first few thousand on his treadmill, in a breathless group chat with minister buddies around the country who also work in hospitals, hospices and assisted living facilities.
This is his time for prayer, meditations on Scripture and deeper questions about religion. It’s also a kind of therapy, where he talks about the “stuff that really stinks,” the stuff for which faith doesn’t always provide an answer.
Things like COVID-19.
The predawn workout of body, mind and spirit helps prepare Keith for his 10-hour shift as a staff chaplain at UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central. His next 16,000 steps will take him through the corridors of Colorado Springs’ busiest emergency room, and into the lives of hundreds of people who look to him for a different kind of healing.
“There’s an old saying, that there are no atheists in foxholes, and there certainly are none in hospitals,” said Keith, who’s 60.
Hospital chaplains work as part of a patient’s interdisciplinary team, along with doctors, nurses, and other health and social service providers, to “take care of the whole patient,” said Keith, who also serves as a liaison with families.
An ordained minister in the Independent Catholic church, Keith worked in the mental health field as a director of spiritual life before becoming a chaplain at UCHealth 12 years ago, where he joined two other full-time and four half-time chaplains who represent the range of faith traditions.
“Most of us are generalists. I think we speak the language of people’s faith, and can use the right words, so they know that we’re hearing them,” Keith said.
It wasn’t an easy, or sedentary, job even before the coronavirus.
Chaplains are called to be there for beginnings, endings and second chances.
“We’re called to pre-op, for people getting ready for surgery, and women who are in labor,” Keith said. “People find faith while they are here, but sometimes people just find the bigger picture of wanting to make changes in their life, and make connections. Kind of the unintended consequence of a pandemic might be they miss their family. Maybe they didn’t miss them before, but they miss them now.”
In pandemic times, he’s holding up screens so patients can see and hear their family, and holding their hands when loved ones can’t be there to do it themselves.
Keith recalled one such visit, with a Memorial patient who’d undergone major heart surgery and was on a ventilator. After a week of unconsciousness, she awoke to a hospital on veritable lockdown.
“Her mom said, ‘Can you squeeze her hand for me?’” said Keith. “That gal … held my hand and wouldn’t let go. I was fully protected in all the PPE garb, but she was holding so tight I almost left the glove in her hand.”
After a month in the hospital, the patient was discharged last week, Keith said.
“We say it's an honor and privilege to be allowed into their life. We are there at the end of life for a lot of people, but a far bigger majority we get to see them go home,” Keith said, adding that the burden on staff has lessened somewhat in recent weeks, since the hospital relaxed its visitor policy to allow one visitor or support person per 24-hour period.
Not being able to make a human connection, or only make it through layers of gear, is a challenge, Keith said, especially for a pastor from a faith tradition that values the power of touch. But, with that, old platitudes and simple gestures have taken on a new weight.
“You pass a colleague in the hallway, and give a thumbs up. Sometimes it’s much more subtle than anyone would even notice,” Keith said. “And it’s very powerful when a patient asks, ‘How are you doing?’ Sometimes it takes the wind right out of our sails. It’s just so human and intimate and caring.”
Most days, by the time he heads home, Keith’s FitBit is approaching 10 miles. He’s exhausted, but his journey isn’t over yet.
He and his wife used to commute home from work together, and use the time to process and debrief each other about their days. That way, when they got into the house they could focus on one another.
“We've just always tried to be deliberate about not bringing that inside," he said. "But now she's working from home, so that's not happening. But I think we've found a nice substitute."
After he showers and changes clothes, he kisses and hugs his wife hello. If it’s cool enough outside, they take the neighbor’s dog for a walk.
His last thousand steps, they walk together.