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A physician shares what it’s been like to serve in 3 epidemics


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Timothy P. Flanigan, MD - published on 07/07/21

A doctor's reflections on COVID, suffering, loss, and Christian love.

We are just now emerging from the COVID epidemic. As an infection disease physician and a permanent Catholic deacon, I’ve been right in the midst of it. 

It’s my third epidemic. I’ve been an HIV and AIDS doctor for 30 years. I spent two months in Liberia in the middle of the Ebola epidemic in 2014. In March of 2020, I helped care for our first patient in Rhode Island with COVID pneumonia and have been responding to this epidemic for the past year. My faith, my patients, and my fellow healthcare workers have helped me along the way.

I cared for my first patient with HIV in 1983 in New York City. The AIDS epidemic unfolded before our eyes throughout the 80s and 90s. We cared for patients knowing that we could win a battle here and there by treating one or another of the complicating infections but we could not reverse the destruction of the immune system and their almost certain death.

Those were the days before we had effective combination medications that could treat HIV. Instead we journeyed with and cared for patients until their death. The courage with which so many of our patients walked the journey, along with their parents or partners or friends or siblings, was humbling. It was love in action. Often it was unexpected. Parents that had been alienated from their son or daughter dropped everything to provide care for them full time. Friends or partners often gave up their professions to be the primary caregiver. Faith and prayer, even among those who did not consider themselves very religious, was the rule rather than the exception. 

In the midst of this terrible loss, one couldn’t help but ponder the “why” of human suffering. As an Indian colleague of mine put it, “You Americans think that something or someone is at fault if you have to suffer. It’s an aberration or a mistake. You want to know ‘who messed up?’ We Indians think human suffering is like the rain; we need to help each other through it. It’s good to lessen it, but it’s part of the fabric of our life and one cannot avoid it.” The blame game very rarely helps in the midst of our pain.

In August 2014, I left to spend two months in Liberia working with Catholic clinics and Saint Joseph’s Catholic hospital, which had been shut down in the midst of Ebola. Ebola was cruel because it hit family member upon family member. The virus spreads particularly well when a person is very ill. So when a person was stricken by the virus, their spouse or their parents or their child or a sibling rushed to the bedside to provide care. Then the virus would attack that person, and when they became ill, it would attack their family member who was their caregiver.

In the midst of this awful and fearful epidemic, God was not relegated to the periphery; faith and vocal, public prayer in God‘s goodness was at the center of all activities and every day life. In the Liberian community, God is ever present. Faith is one’s life blood. Prayer is poured out not because one should, but because one must. It’s in our very being. Mass, worship, and church services continued every Sunday. In fact, the announcement time at the end of church was used for myself as a doctor or a nurse to stand up and reinforce public health messages. Living one’s faith and doing one’s work were not considered separate activities.

On March 1, 2020, COVID hit Rhode Island. The next six months were crazy busy. Early on, many patients, mostly elderly, died without their families at their bedside. The nurses that provided care were amazing. They were at the bedside, even though there was so much we didn’t know. Even when so many doctors were afraid to visit with their patients person to person, the nurses would be at the bedside comforting and reassuring. I am personally convinced that heaven will be full of nurses (that’s not a theological dogma, but it is my opinion). Our hospital chaplain would routinely visit at the bedside to pray and provide the sacraments. He himself contracted COVID and recovered, fortunately. The “aloneness” was often the hardest part. Patients were alone with their fear and with their deepest worries. And yet, we are never truly alone because Jesus is with us.

A friend of mine who was desperately ill in the hospital had an experience that opened his eyes to Jesus‘ presence in the midst of our suffering. When my friend was very ill, he saw Jesus standing by his bed and he asked Jesus how he could possibly carry His cross when He had suffered so much and lost so much blood during His Passion. Jesus answered, “I did not carry my cross alone and you will not carry your cross alone. I will help you.” He suddenly understood that his suffering was joined to Jesus’ and Jesus was with him and helping him.

Part of the mystery of the cross … and the mystery of our suffering … is that we are never alone. Jesus draws all who suffer into the love of His Sacred Heart. Jesus experienced the worst suffering imaginable and did it out of love for us. He asks us to help him carry His cross just like Simon of Cyrene. He helps us to carry our cross. Mother Teresa may have said it best: “Pain and suffering have come into your life, but remember pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus — a sign that you have come so close to Him that He can kiss you.”

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