“I can’t sleep,” Jane cries to me on the phone after her fourth night of insomnia. She asks me again to refill her “rescue” anxiety med to stop panic attacks and quickly aid in sleep despite my warnings about addiction and increased falling risk.

Others cried, “I just want to see my grandchildren.” “I don’t know why I’m here.” “I can’t go to work.” “How will we mourn her loss?” “I don’t know what to do; we didn’t even say goodbye.”

These are the expressions of loss my patients all shared with me amid this pandemic.

As an Italian Catholic and an Osteopathic Physician, I use my hands to communicate. I had no way to anticipate that the coronavirus pandemic would cut me off at the wrists. We were strictly instructed that providers cannot remove masks, must wear eye shields at all time and cannot shake hands. With my major form of communication cut off, I relied on the only other communication that could transcend all physical barriers: I started to pray.

After having the virus myself and strictly quarantining, I was deployed to our in-patient service for nearly six weeks. Switching back and forth nights and days left my husband and me with more Facetime calls and lines on our faces from both masks and worry.

Every day treating COVID-19 patients took a different spin. Instead of family meetings, I was making care plans and providing daily updates on six-way phone calls. Instead of shaking their hands with a look in the eye, I showed patients my picture. The hospital restricted visitors, including Catholic priests, so I could not procure Last Rites for a critically ill religious sister. At the start of this crisis my residency again instructed us about advanced care planning. I was adequately prepared by my attendings and the psychology team, but could not have anticipated the way this virus rips families apart.

While caring for my patients at the hospital, I kept calling my office patients to check-in. Those calls frequently required convincing them to come to the hospital to treat concerning complaints that had nothing to do with the coronavirus such as kidney infections, fainting spells, and diabetic crises. The prepared speech contained, “I know what this feels like. Trust yourself. Your body will know when it’s not right.” Yet while the world was fighting for a cure, my secret weapon was not albuterol, hydroxychloroquine or proning — the preferred method of placing COVID-19 patients on their stomachs. The secret weapon is prayer.

Every day I add to my prayer list, while gulping my morning coffee. Rushing out the door I keep thinking, when will this end? For how many of my patients have I adjusted their anti-depressant scripts? How many patients are suffering from new alcoholism or addiction? When can I see my family again without exposing them?

This experience impresses on me the importance of the doctor-patient relationship. What you do as Catholic physician matters. Many of these physical maladies reflect the intimate internal state of the soul: patients crave connection and belonging, to be seen and heard.

My 77-year-old isolated patient Jane missed her family, craved connection with her church, with her friends. We made her a prescription:  talk to one friend or family member every day on the phone. Every week write someone you haven’t spoken to a letter. Call your pastor. Read a good book and the Good Book. These simple things helped her move from less than four hours of sleep to five, six, then even seven, without the sleep medication she relied on for years.

Americans need to go back to work, safely. Americans need to worship, safely. Americans need to see their doctors and families face-to-face, safely. This job is a vocation, a blessing, and a privilege. Till we have faces again, I’ll keep staying late to call families. I’ll keep putting on mascara and face shields while wearing my hair back. I’ll keep worrying; I’ll keep praying.


This article is written exclusively for The Pulse of Catholic Medicine as a follow up to the In-House blog, titled “Patient Zero: Doing My Part from Home While Battling COVID-19” in which Dr. Stahl Piraino shares her experience of having had COVID-19. You can read the article here.  She is the Resident Physician Representative to the Philadelphia Guild of the Catholic Medical Association. The patient’s name mentioned in the article has been changed to protect her privacy.