President Donald J. Trump welcomes health care and nursing association representatives to the Oval Office prior to signing a proclamation in honor of National Nurses Day Wednesday, May 6, 2020, at the White House. From left to right: Dr. Ernest Grant, Lisa Barlow, Caroline Few Elliot, Luke Adams, Marty Blankenship, Allen Zelno, Sophia Thomas and Maria Arvonio. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

CMA members Maria Arvonio and Allen Zelno joined a delegation of nurses gathered with President Donald Trump in the oval office as he signed a proclamation for National Nurses Day on May 6, 2020. The event marked the heroic contribution of nurses in the American response to the coronavirus pandemic, with the proclamation noting how, throughout the history of our nation, American nurses have “rushed in” to care for others during our most trying times, doing so with “unsurpassed mercy, strength, and compassion.”

A Healing Touch

Maria Arvonio

Maria Arvonio, a nursing supervisor at Virtua Hospital in Willingsboro, New Jersey addressed the president during the event, telling him that in spite of the fact that nursing is based on science, it is never possible to take the element of compassion out of good health care. With a quick anecdote about the first COVID-19 patient she cared for, she demonstrated that healing takes place not only through attention to physical needs, but also through care for a patient’s emotional and spiritual needs. She related that her patient looked at her with fearful eyes, and that she knew she had to find a way to calm her in spite of all the protective equipment forming a barrier between them. She spoke peacefully to the patient, putting her hand on her arm, and saw her patient’s fear melt away.

Arvonio is no stranger to nursing in a time of fear, uncertainty, and an unfamiliar disease. It was nearly 40 years ago when the ICU where she worked saw its first AIDS patient. At that time, the contagious nature of the disease was well-known, but it was not clear how effective preventive measures would be, or which ones were necessary. In addition, little was known about how best to care for such patients. In order to limit contact, the patient was quarantined to one room and his nurse was quarantined with him. That nurse was Arvonio.

One thing she notes repeatedly is that all the protective equipment, though absolutely vital, puts not just a physical but an emotional barrier between the health care worker and the patient that must be intentionally overcome. When she is “garbed up,” Arvonio makes an extra effort to look patients in the eye, to reach out with a loving gloved hand on their arm, and to spend a little extra time listening. Both her training and experience have proven to her that compassionate nursing entails care not only for the physical but the spiritual needs of every patient.

As she points out, the media too often exacerbated the fears of the public, which Arvonio says often resulted in patients whose anxiety hindered their healing. She found her hospital’s decision to bar priests from entering the facility lamentable, because in her view a priest can be needed for the spiritual healing of a patient just as vitally as penicillin is needed for an infection.

However, Arvonio also found that the void left by priests called forth from nurses a deeper spiritual care for their patients than they were used to providing. Without pastors and chaplains available to them for comfort and support, it was an extreme hardship for patients to deal with their fears about the illness and possible death. Arvonio pointed out to her fellow nurses that it was good for them to have to deal more intimately with this aspect of patient care — it reminded them all of the fact that healing is not merely a physical process.

Rallying Around the Homeless

Allen Zelno would certainly agree. He is a parish nurse in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he is dedicated specifically to caring for the underserved population of the homeless and poor in his area. Parish nurses, also called faith community nurses, are trained in whole health, and their work in a community is directed by a faith-based organization. Zelno describes his work as founded on the Gospel, and he very intentionally wore a cross around his neck when he appeared at the press conference in the oval office.

Allen Zelno

Before the coronavirus response was initiated in the U.S., Zelno’s work involved meeting the poor where they naturally gathered — at soup kitchens and homeless shelters. He focused on their physical health first, but also offered assistance with needs like how to obtain a driver’s license or how to get help with Medicare. His overarching goal, however, was “care of the spirit.”

When these community-based programs began to close due to state restrictions, Zelno immediately felt called to fight on the frontlines for these clients. He and his associates looked for a way to meet the needs of the poor who might contract the disease. Through a multi-agency effort, they were able to secure area motels for quarantining homeless persons who tested positive for the disease, and Zelno and other parish nurses promptly volunteered to care for them there.

Soon, his care for the quarantined patients took on all the aspects of his previous work. He served them not only through the disease progression, but also connected them with other needed assistance as they regained their health, such as mental health services and transitional housing. Most powerful of all, he prayed with them.

Compassionate Care Extends to Self-Care for Health Care Providers

The fear and anxiety that the pandemic has engendered is not an issue just for patients, of course. Health care providers have to cope with these issues as well for the foreseeable future. Zelno says that he draws strength for these times from the Jesuit spirituality that was part of his education, which taught him that “God is in all things. Wherever we are at any moment is God’s will for us.” His deep trust in God’s providence assures him that nothing he faces will be outside of His will. Zelno has a deep sense that his work is an integral part of how he answers the call of the gospel to love, serve, and evangelize.

As a nursing supervisor, Arvonio found herself caring not only for fearful patients but also for other nurses who needed a shoulder to lean on or an understanding ear. She counseled them to focus on the practical needs of each moment rather than worrying about things beyond their control. She helped one nurse through the disease and encouraged her that she would now “be a better nurse” for having had the difficult experience.

She, too, relies on other nurses for support, citing the National Association of Catholic Nurses and the Catholic Medical Association as outstanding resources for Catholic health care providers, as did Zelno. Arvonio said that she has been able to connect with other Catholic nurses through Zoom meetings “not to have a pity party, but to share ideas and show compassion, to share prayer and even music so that we can lift each other up. Sometimes we need to turn off the TV and give praise to God, as an offering and a sacrifice.”

The Sacraments as Source of Comfort

Both Arvonio and Zelno emphasized the vital role of the sacraments in giving the strength and grace needed for difficult times. Zelno pointed out that without the support of his wife, Kamrinne, he could not have taken one step in the fight against COVID-19. He credits the grace flowing from the sacrament of matrimony for the peace they have experienced while Zelno cares for those who have tested positive, and he sees his work as something the two have committed to together.

Each day Arvonio has watched Mass and prayed the rosary with two of her friends. The words of Psalm 91 have been frequently on her mind. Arvonio says that in her experience the pandemic constituted a test of faith for many. “Do you really believe? If I trust, my actions will show it. I will be calm. I will be at peace — the peace that comes from Christ. I can’t do this, but through Christ I can do all things. Through the two hearts — Christ and Our Lady — we stand strong and show our faith.”

Zelno echoes the need for health care providers to witness to the faith through “joy, dedication, and strength” during this crisis. Sometimes, he says, “you need to step away from the work for a moment and just talk with your coworkers. Don’t be ashamed of sharing your cross with others,” noting that “being open about your faith is different than being pushy. Although the workplace seems very secular, when you let your faith come out naturally, people see that. And,” he adds, “they will want to know where your strength comes from,” referencing St. Peter’s words, “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15).