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Catholics in healthcare are facing the COVID-19 pandemic with the faith that everything in life is in God’s hands. In addition, many Catholic doctors, nurses and other professionals are aware that they can bring something to their patients in addition to cures and treatment of symptoms.
”Much of my response to this comes from my professional responsibility, from professionalism. But a lot of it comes from faith too,” said Dr. Greg Burke, an internal medicine physician in Danville, Pennsylvania, and co-chairman of the Catholic Medical Association’s ethics committee. “It’s a matter of saying, ‘This is what you promised to do for others, to have integrity, to be compassionate.’ There’s a whole tradition of Catholics in healthcare. In many ways, hospitals caring for the ill is a Catholic thing. It historically came out of the Church hundreds of years ago. So I think I’m inspired by that and recognize that I have to use my faith to inspire me to do that work.”
Increased prayer is a “big part of that,” Burke said, as well as “relying on the faith to put things in perspective.”
That sentiment was expressed by many Catholic healthcare professionals interviewed over the past week around the country.
“When we’ve come to a point where we have no control over what’s going to happen, that’s where our faith comes in and helps us the most, because we always place our trust in God, who has power over everything,” said Dr. Reeja Vembenil, a neonatologist at White Plains Hospital in suburban New York. “So when we feel the most helpless, that’s when our faith helps us the most.”
What Catholics can and should bring to patient care is compassion, Vembenil said.
“Everyone who is sick or thinking they may be sick are afraid, so one thing is to show them compassion,” she said. Knowing how contagious COVID-19 is, and how many people fear that contagion, patients might feel marginalized. “What Catholic healthcare professionals can do is treat them as you would treat one of your own family members and loved ones, while taking more precautions,” the Kerala, India-born doctor said.
The second thing Vembenil said Catholic healthcare professionals can do is to “be more grounded, because fear and anxiety don’t help us perform in our best possible way,” she said. “It paralyzes us. Have faith that God watches over us, and all we need to do is use our brains, use all the personal protective equipment we can, while taking care of these patients. … If you’re doing what needs to be done, the rest is in God’s hands. It takes away that extra feeling of fear of ‘What if something happens?’“
Dr. Lija Joseph, a pathologist who is the director of clinical laboratories at Lowell General Hospital near Boston, said that prayer has helped her stay calm in an age of pandemic. Her job is to ensure that tests for COVID-19, which now represent the lion’s share of the testing being done by her lab, are accurate and timely, and to oversee protection measures for her staff. She has been able to attend a private Mass at a convent chapel and receive the Eucharist, which she said “has really helped me.”
”The first Sunday, I prayed for all of the patients at my hospital and all the leadership who were organizing the incident command center,” she said. “I was moved as I was praying to let them know that I was praying for them, and I emailed every single one of them, telling them, ‘Please don’t be afraid. I was able to attend Mass and was able to pray for each of you specifically and all of the patients at the hospital.’
”Within five minutes, everybody thanked me for that,” she continued. “I just felt that I needed to say to them that there is a God who is above all, who is in charge. One person said it made her cry to know that there are so many people praying. This is not something we would normally deal with, so you need supernatural strength.”
Dr. Joseph has also reached out to individuals who ”might feel alone or not as appreciated. I send a note to one person a day, letting them know how I pray for them and how they’ve been a blessing to me in my life,” she said. ”That has helped me focus away from me and my own anxieties to lend that grace that God allowed me to reach out to others, so that has helped me stay grounded.”
Some healthcare professionals interviewed by Aleteia said that one thing that normally gives them the spiritual strength to do their work is currently not possible: attendance at Mass and reception of holy Communion.
“One of the difficulties is not having the sacraments, and I’m trying to look forward to that Easter moment, which may not even be on Easter Day, but some time when we’re all allowed to return to the sacraments and Holy Mass for strength and spiritual nourishment,” said the CMA’s Dr. Burke.
Dolores Meehan, a nurse who works on the COVID-19 floor at San Francisco General Hospital, helped to set up a website to petition the bishops of the country to find ways to make it possible to have public celebrations of the Mass.
“What we’re suggesting is that in the same way all the other essential businesses are being kept open and are being compliant with public health regulations that the bishops should appeal to the state that public worship be included as an essential service in as much as those parameters could be met,” said Meehan. She argued that it is even more important in a time of great anxiety.
“People are going to all sorts of things,” said Meehan, who is also co-founder of the Walk for Life West Coast. “You can go to Planned Parenthood and get an abortion; you can go to the pot dispensary and get your pot; you can go to Home Depot. Why? Because they’re able to kind of create an environment. We went to our church and set up, with an 8 foot radius, and created 76 different places inside the church where people could sit and we could add Masses, like the Polish bishops are doing. The point is, we can be really creative on how to actually deliver the Mass. This is not an either/or; it’s a matter of being prudent.”
Dr. Burke said that Catholic healthcare professionals looking for resources to help them through this difficult time might do well to read a statement the CMA issued last Friday, Guiding Principles For Catholic Healthcare Professionals During a Pandemic.
“Recalling our commissioning by the Divine Physician, the Catholic Christian physician has a special calling—different from the secular world—in that he or she sees the human person as an invaluable creation of God whose individual worth should never be sacrificed—even in the midst of a pandemic,” the statement reads in part.
Dr. Zola N’Dandu, an interventional cardiologist At Ochsner Medical System in New Orleans, said that in any case, the prayers of ordinary people are important to medical professionals at this time.
Said N’Dandu, “Some of us are going to do things or are doing things that are beyond our capabilities.”