March 25, 2020

Practicing Palliative Care in the Midst of the Coronavirus

This article has been submitted to The Linacre Quarterly for publication and is included on the CMA website with the permission of Sage Publications.

“And I saw a river over which every soul must pass to reach the Kingdom of Heaven, and the name of that river was suffering… and then I saw a boat which carried souls across the river, and the name of that boat was love.”  – St. John of the Cross

Seeing Beauty in the Trenches of COVID-19

Like many, I have approached this COVID-19 pandemic with a mix of emotions.  I have had fear, anxiety, anger, and frustration.  I have been saddened over the forced isolation and continue to worry about the loneliness I may experience.  There is an inherent helplessness in feeling so uncertain about what the next days to weeks may hold.

            I am a Catholic medical doctor, specializing in the field of palliative medicine.  Coming from the word palliare, which means “to cloak” or “to shield,” I am trained in helping support patients and their families through serious illness.  Whatever the stress, symptom, or concern, I am trained to help communicate and console when difficult or crisis health issues arise.  My mission is to help people continue to live the best lives despite any illness.  While I cannot eliminate all suffering, I work to help people keep growing, and even flourishing, in the midst of it.

             In practicing palliative care in the midst of the coronavirus, something I did not think I would be experiencing right now is beauty.  Yet there it is all the same.  Beauty is present in the steadfastness and devotion of the care by my colleagues.  Never have I been so proud to work at my hospital and to see the work of sacrifice and dedication.  There is a special kindness present as we unite, all on the same team, working to care for our sick and vulnerable.  This moment is a tangible experience of the reality that together we all comprise the Body of Christ and I am inspired by the words of St. Teresa of Avila who said, “Christ has no body now but yours.  No hands, no feet on earth but yours.  Yours are the eyes through which He looks compassion on this world.  Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good.  Yours are the hands through which He blesses all the world.”

            Beauty is present in the love I witness in my patients and their families.  Even through isolation, I am privileged to experience the deep emotional connection between loved ones.  Given the hospital visitor restrictions, my team has asked family members to email us photos of the patient and their family or words of encouragement for us to put in their rooms.  Signs to remember they are not alone.  We have been reaching out to families at home, to check in on how they are doing emotionally and spiritually.   We have creatively been looking into how we can provide spiritual cares and connections with priests, even virtually, at the bedside.

            As a Catholic physician, this experience has the potential to release great beauty in me.  I see beauty in the courage that the situation is summoning up in me, reminding me of my original call to serve through medicine.  Pope Francis has been known to call the Catholic Church “a field hospital after battle.”  This is the time, for us all to radically love and to bring light into the darkness in the trenches, wherever we are.  In this time of frenzy and panic, we can bring our calming presence, rooted in our trust in the Lord, to our colleagues, our patients, our communities, our families.  Situations like this call us to virtue, call us to go outside ourselves and plead to the Holy Spirit to use us as instruments of divine charity.  What a beautiful opportunity to further commit ourselves to our vocations!  How can we creatively love and work to ease the suffering so present around us?  Even merely bringing a spirit of joy and cheerfulness to those around us can make a difference.

            When Mother Teresa was asked how she was able to care for the poorest of the poor she once said, “I know I am touching the living body of Christ in the broken bodies of the hungry and the suffering.”  We cannot forget at the heart of this crisis remains the person, full of dignity and who calls us to love.  Despite the stigma and fear surrounding this virus, we must remain dedicated to willing the good of the other and remembering that a person is never reduced to a disease.  We must keep before us that this is a life with dignity, and we must have a renewed patience with one another as together, as the Body of Christ, we work through this hardship.  We must remain steadfast in faith and in prayer, particularly for those full of sorrow at this time.  Although many events have been canceled and we may be socially distanced, the Lord is closer than ever.  He has not left us.  As the thirteenth chapter of the book of Hebrews proclaims, “I will never forsake you or abandon you.” Thus we may say with confidence: “The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid.”

            Just as I often tell my patients in palliative care who have been dealt a serious diagnosis, this disease does not define them.  Likewise, this challenge with COVID-19 does not define us.  Our identity, as beloved sons and daughters of God, is unalterable, and the source of our inherent dignity.  Despite the suffering we are now enduring, God is still ever waiting for us, wanting to open our hearts and to work in our lives.  As we are united in this endeavor, unprecedented in our lifetime, to protect and preserve human life and human dignity, let us cling to His mercy and trust in His goodness, that He may work to bring out in us further sanctification during this time.  That we may not just endure this time, but grow, even flourish.

Written by Natalie Rodden, MD, with assistance from Nicole Shirilla, MD.

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