Support from Joe Meekins, Mass General ALS chaplain, helps patients, families and staff cope.

When the COVID-19 outbreak reached its peak in April in Massachusetts, Taylor Stirrat, RN, a nurse at the Sean M. Healey & AMG Center for ALS at Massachusetts General Hospital, and her colleagues were stressed out. Caring for their patients with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) on an out-patient basis, they also struggled to balance their reactions to the pandemic with the urge to help on the front lines.

“I get so much energy and joy from seeing a person spiritually grow.”

“We decided we needed a ‘Joe’ session,” says Taylor, referencing the hospital and ALS spiritual care provider Joe Meekins. Joe has been meeting regularly with the ALS staff for the last three years, helping them understand their feelings when it comes to caring for sick patients.

Joe Answers the Call

Just 28 years old, Joe felt a call to pastoral ministry in his early teen years, but wasn’t planning on a career ministering to hospital patients. After receiving his Master of Divinity and Master of Arts in Counseling at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in 2014, he served a year-long residency at Mass General as part of his clinical pastoral training. At year’s end, Joe was hooked. “I get so much energy and joy from seeing a person spiritually grow,” says Joe. “To see a patient take suffering or a loss from an enemy to a tool, and to give them the space for that change to happen in their life — there is nothing better. That shift is everything.”

Joe Meekins
Joe Meekins

Joe is not immune to his own suffering, experiencing several losses in his own life that he had to work through. “You can only go as deep with others as you’ve gone with yourself,” says Meekins. “Those experiences help me to come alongside others emotionally and spiritually during their struggles.

More than Spiritual Support

In addition to helping staff boost their strength and resiliency, Joe also helps ALS patients cope with their diagnosis, care and end-of-life decisions. “He helps unearth a lot about patients and their beliefs, which helps us to be better clinicians and prepare for the more difficult conversations,” says Sarah Luppino, RN BSN, associate site director/ALS clinic nurse. “He’s rooted in a very strong faith that drives and centers him and also teaches us the practice of centering ourselves. He has this inspiring way of looking at the world — connecting for us how one’s beliefs play into their care decisions.”

“He gave us a space to stop for a moment and feel how we were feeling. He helped to get our feet back under us.”

“Our patients are so wonderful and invite us into their families,” says Jen Scalia, NP, nurse manager for the ALS Clinic. “Losing patients is so difficult for all of our staff. Having Joe there to help us think about death differently and how to support ourselves has been hugely helpful. And he’s done an amazing job of showing patients how their spirituality can help relieve both their physical and spiritual suffering.”

“The health and resiliency of our staff is so important, and integral to our ability to care for our patients,” says Merit Cudkowicz, MD, MSc, director of the Healey Center for ALS. “We’re so fortunate to be able to work with Joe and benefit from his expertise and support.”

After a 90-minute zoom session with Meekins, the team was feeling stronger and more connected. “We were feeling very uncertain with the COVID-19 outbreak,” says Sarah, who originally asked Joe to work with the ALS staff — including research coordinators, nurses and physicians — after seeing how he connected with patients in clinic. “He gave us a space to stop for a moment and feel how we were feeling. He helped to get our feet back under us.”

To learn more about the Sean M. Healey & AMG Center for ALS, or to make a donation, please contact us.

This story first appeared on the Sean M. Healey & AMG Center for ALS news page.