Amid pandemic, health care professionals find support, strength in faith

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A health care worker in Seattle holds some of the thousands of masks that have been donated March 22, 2020, by community members for the protection against the coronavirus. Amid the pandemic, health care professionals are urged to take special care of their own physical, mental and spiritual health. CNS photo/David Ryder, Reuters

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CNS) — The tsunami of fear around the COVID-19 pandemic and the way it caught the world’s medical community often lacking resources, testing and protective equipment is now testing the faith of U.S. medical professionals.

“Priorities have changed significantly since the pandemic,” said Dr. Greg Burke, a Pennsylvania-based physician of internal medicine and co-chair of Catholic Medical Association’s Ethics Committee.

Demonstrating a sense of calm is critical for health care professionals who are rightly viewed as being willing to take risks to maintain the health of all, Burke told Catholic News Service, adding that confusion and misinformation are to be expected during a period of significant anxiety. But health care professionals must stay informed on the most relevant clinical facts.

“Also, a great degree of flexibility in work is now required: Can patients be managed by phone or telehealth? What meetings are essential? Will I be redeployed to a different unit or care setting?” Burke said.

“Professionalism, particularly in our Catholic tradition, requires that we make our skills available where most needed,” he added.

Although churches have closed across the U.S. and it is no longer feasible for medics to attend Sunday Mass, Burke said a recent visit to a nursing home where he practices enabled him access to a chapel with the Blessed Sacrament.

“My access there was rewarded by that visit,” he said, noting that he sees St. Joseph as a great model of courage and fidelity in times of crisis.

He also cited St. Joseph Moscati, a turn-of-the-century Italian doctor and researcher, as a role model saint for physicians, along with St. Gianna Beretta Molla, an Italian pediatrician.

“As a Catholic physician, like all Catholics, I find my strength in the sacraments,” Burke said. “It is difficult in the current situation to be deprived of that grace. However communal prayer, reading and devotions on social media are very helpful.”

Burke said he also finds great inspiration in the physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners and support staff around him. “The sense of teamwork and devotion to the goal keeps me inspired. When the temptation comes to distance myself from personal risk, they remind me of my duty to serve our patients.”

In San Jose, California, not far from one of the larger U.S. outbreaks of COVID-19, Dr. Edgar Gamboa, a surgeon and Knight of Malta with numerous missionary medical projects to his credit, said he has seen a raft of workplace modifications as hospitals gear up for a potential onslaught of coronavirus.

“This is to free up hospital space, beds, resources, supplies and personnel in case the epidemic peaks (here),” Gamboa told CNS. “There’s also the remote risk of unnecessarily exposing elective patients to the virus. Likewise, we are limiting appointments of clinic patients to necessary visits and routine medical and surgical follow ups are being postponed.”

Gamboa notes the Hippocratic mission has always been to care for the sick, regardless of risk.

He said he looks to the lives of St. Roch, an Italian priest who lived during the Black Plague; St. Charles Borromeo, who lived during the 16th-century plague of Milan, Italy; and St. Henry Morse, who nursed the sick during an English plague in the 17th century and at one point fell ill with the plague himself.

Asked what fortifies his strength in times of fear and uncertainty: “As in any time, the rosary,” Gamboa said, adding that he also takes comfort in his scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a crucifix, holy water, water from the Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine in France and eucharistic adoration.

In Clearwater, Florida, Dr. Diane Gowski, a hospital physician who specializes in adult internal medicine and who is the Florida state director of the Catholic Medical Association, said even before COVID-19, she routinely wore gloves and masks when attending to patients with the flu or pneumonia — but said there is alarm at dwindling national supply of personal protective gear.

“Even the regular surgical masks are hard to find; medical supply stores don’t have (them),” Gowski said.

The Catholic Medical Association’s members in her region practice medicine in a variety of capacities, but “pulmonologists are really in the front lines and I can say people are already being exposed,” she told CNS. I don’t think there is a sense of fear: The Lord is with us, and we use our protective gear, do the best we can and try to be prudent.”

With public celebration of Sunday Masses canceled, Gowski said she turns to other faith practices including the rosary, a miraculous medal, a brown scapular and a St. Benedict medal.

This also is a time for quick prayers that medics can recite while running between appointments.

“One of my favorites is a short ‘Novena of Surrender’ prayer, ‘Oh Jesus and Mary, I surrender myself to you, take care of everything,'” she said. “That is a short and sweet but powerful prayer. We often don’t have time to say long prayers.”

As for the trajectory of the pandemic, Gowski said she has no crystal ball but eventually it will end.

“Our Lord will bring us through this but personally I think it will be not sooner than later. Prayer can shorten this time — and a lot of people are calling for prayer and praying,” she said, adding that the lives of St. Joseph and St. Padre Pio offer her inspiration.

“The virtue of fortitude is key — this is a time to practice and develop that virtue. That helps us stand firm and remain constant as we try to be good and do our duties, to take care of ourselves, our families and our patients,” she said. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that fortitude enables us to conquer fear even of our own development of illness that could be life threatening.”

Father Tad Pacholczyk, who is a neuroscientist and an ethicist and director of education on the staff of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, said COVID-19’s sheer novelty and speed to transmission has been a significant stressor for the medical community.

“It quickly acquired a larger-than-life quality, even as debate continued about how virulent it really was and what steps might constitute a proportionate response,” he told CNS, adding that the public’s panic and fear are palpable.

Actions and decisions motivated by fear, however, usually don’t result in the best outcomes, he added.

“Our Lord himself counsels us never to give in to fear. The Old and New Testaments remind us at least 365 times to “be not afraid,” Father Pacholczyk said. “Through prayer, and through our camaraderie with God and one another, Christians can offer … a deeper trust and hope that can overcome fear’s hegemony.”

Dr. Joseph Thornton, Florida assistant state director of the medical association, and an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida College of Medicine, said his background includes practicing medicine in an institutional settings including a federal prison. He is concerned about local community and national preparedness for a pandemic.

““The facts are we are in a bad situation and it’s mostly bad because of some things that we should have done were not done: The testing is not really worth pursuing at this point but what is of immediate concern is the surge on hospital beds, particularly the intensive care units and protecting staff and other patients and protecting the public,” Thornton said.

The pandemic spread is going to be a huge challenge “not so much because any one hospital will be taking on something it normally couldn’t take on but because all the hospitals around the country and world are affected, and so you can’t draw on support and resources you might have planned for.”

He said he is guiding other medics through principles of operational stress management — reminding health care professionals to take special care of their own physical, mental and spiritual health to gird against poor outcomes.

“We have seen it with our leadership where people are experiencing denial or impulsive reactivity and they respond destructively,” Thornton said. “You are trying to avoid that and promote some rational decision making by paying attention to the basic values and connectedness through shared decisions.”

“For Catholics our prayer life is foremost, and for secular folks we focus on problem solving,” he said. “If we stay connected and together we can better confront this danger and get through it in the best possible way.”

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