Nashville doctor serving on COVID front lines in Texas

Dr. Rachel Kaiser, a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and an ER doctor at Ascension Saint Thomas Hospital in Nashville, is pictured in front of Christus Spohn Hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas. She’s been there for the last month with an Army Reserve task force as a doctor in the intensive care unit, working with COVID patients and others with serious medical conditions.

Like any good soldier, when Dr. Rachel Kaiser, a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, was called up to the front lines in the battle against the COVID-19 virus, she was quick to go.

For the last month, she’s been working with an Army Reserve task force at Christus Spohn Hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, as a doctor in the intensive care unit working with COVID patients and others with serious medical conditions.

“Corpus Christi and the whole south Texas coast has been hit really hard by the COVID virus,” said Kaiser, whose regular job is as an emergency room doctor at Ascension Saint Thomas West Hospital in Nashville.

The hospitals in Corpus Christi, one of the hardest hit areas of one of the hardest hit states, have been overwhelmed. The ICU unit at Christus Spohn normally treats about 50 patients at a time, but during the pandemic, the patient count has increased to as many as 150, said Kaiser, a past president of the Nashville Guild of the Catholic Medical Association and the current Tennessee State Director for the CMA.

“It’s very challenging. At Saint Thomas we were prepared for a big surge of COVID-19 patients and it never happened,” she said. “Here we’re seeing a hospital totally overwhelmed.”

Officials in Texas turned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for help, which in turn requested that the Army Reserve send an Urban Augmentation Medical Task Force, made of doctors, nurses, physician assistants, pharmacists, respiratory therapists, and other medical professionals, to help relieve overworked health care workers. When Kaiser and the other Reservists arrived at Christus Spohn Hospital, most of the doctors on staff in the ICU had worked without a day off for upwards of 50 days, she said.

Kaiser is the Chief of Professional Services for the U.S. Army Reserve’s 332nd Medical Brigade, supervising about 140 medical professionals throughout the Southeast.

She got a call from the Reserve asking if she could leave for Corpus Christi in 48 hours. “I had been anticipating that, so I was to ready to go,” she said.

“They got my credentials with lightning speed,” and two days after arriving, Kaiser started seeing patients.

The hospital in Corpus Christi didn’t need ER doctors but instead critical care doctors to work in the ICU, Kaiser explained. “That was where I was needed, so that’s where I’m practicing.

“This mission is very unusual. Most of the time we are training to offer medical care to troops on the battlefield,” Kaiser said. “At the same time, it’s the perfect opportunity to start practicing the medicine we know.”

About half of Kaiser’s patients have the COVID-19 virus, and many of them also suffer from chronic medical conditions, like diabetes. “You put COVID-19 on top of that and the patients really struggle,” she said. “There’s a very high mortality rate.”

Even though many of Kaiser’s COVID patients are fairly young, “they’re not very healthy to begin with,” she said. “My youngest COVID patient is 40,” Kaiser said. “She’s been on a ventilator for about a month.”

Kaiser and the rest of the staff are also seeing a high number of patients who are homeless.

“It reminds me a little bit of Mother Teresa and her interaction with the poor,” she said. “You at least have a chance to smile and say a kind word to them and remind them that they’re not forgotten.”

The precautions that health care providers must take to protect themselves and their other patients when treating COVID patients can erect barriers, Kaiser said.

“It’s a challenge because you’re wearing a respirator mask that muffles your voice, a face shield and two pairs of gloves,” she said. “The patient interaction is really hard to maintain.”

But wearing such personal protective equipment “is absolutely necessary right now,” Kaiser said.

She also is relying on her Catholic faith to help her complete her mission. “I’m glad it’s a Catholic hospital,” Kaiser said. “They have a nice chapel. I try to go in there every day for a few minutes for my daily prayers.”

The hotel where she is staying is a short walk from Corpus Christi Cathedral and she tries to go there for daily Mass on her off days.

Kaiser is part of a team of eight doctors and physician assistants with the military task force working in the ICU. The task force has a total of about 85 people working at Christus Spohn Hospital.

“We’re working long hours. We’ve seen a lot of people die, but I think we’re turning a corner,” Kaiser said. The number of patients in the ICU has dropped to about 100, she said, although that is still about twice the normal number.

Kaiser is hopeful that the numbers will continue to trend downward and she will be able to return home to Nashville in about a month.

“It’s really gratifying. I’m really enjoying this mission,” she said. “We want to make a difference, and I think that’s what we’re doing.”

VHF helping Haitians battle COVID-19, food insecurity

Dr. Yves Andre, full-time dentist at Visitation Clinic in Haiti, protects himself in personal protective equipment as he treats patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photos courtesy of Visitation Hospital Foundation

The Visitation Hospital Foundation is helping the people of Haiti battle two crises: the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing issue of food insecurity.

The Foundation, which is based in Nashville, operates the Visitation Clinic in Petite Rivière de Nippes, Haiti, to provide health care to an underserved part of the nation.

Visitation Hospital Foundation has been working with the clinic’s staff to provide the resources needed to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, including personal protective equipment for the staff and medications for patients, said Fran Rajotte Myers, chair of the organization’s board.

The people of Petite Rivière are taking steps to protect themselves from the virus, Myers said.

“They wear masks and social distance. The clinic has a handwashing station on the premises so that people can continue to wash their hands and use hand sanitizer,” she said. “They are staying in their homes and not venturing out unless absolutely necessary, as we are doing here in the U.S.”

“This is definitely helping the people stay protected and keeping their COVID cases down,” said Theresa Patterson, executive director of Visitation Hospital Foundation.

The COVID pandemic has compounded the issue of food insecurity in Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries.

Dr. Mary Claude Francois of the Visitation Clinic staff distributes food to mothers with children, to help families facing a food shortage crisis in Haiti. The Visitation Hospital Foundation, which operates the clinic, received food through a partnership with the Parish Twinning Program and Food for the Poor.

“VHF is doing what it can to help alleviate this crisis through a matching collaboration with Food for the Poor and the Parish Twinning Program,” Myers said. “The Visitation Clinic administrator and the staff have been able to distribute bundles of food to needy families. A bundle consists of rice and beans, milk, sardines and oil, which will help mothers in caring for their malnourished children.”

The Foundation is continuing to accept donations to help Visitation Clinic address both issues in Haiti.

The clinic, which treats 1,000 patients per month regardless of their ability to pay, depends on the generosity of its donors. Monetary gifts help pay for patient visits, lab tests and medications, as well as funding for additional tests and surgeries at other health facilities for the clinic’s patients.

For more information about making a donation to Visitation Hospital foundation, email developmentdirector@visitationhospital.org. Those interested can also visit www.visitationhospital.org or send their donation to the foundation at 237 Old Hickory Blvd, Suite 100, Nashville, TN 37221. Visitation Hospital Foundation accepts gifts of money and stocks, Myers said.

“We appreciate every gift, no matter the size, to serve the health care needs of our Haitian brothers and sisters,” said Myers. “Visitation Hospital Foundation has heard the cry of the poor since its inception, and we continue to respond to the needs of the patients we serve with quality patient care and compassion, with help from our donors. We invite everyone who is able to become a part of our ministry.”

Parishes adapting to the pandemic’s new normal

Father Anh Tuan Phan celebrates Mass outside on the ball field on the school grounds at Christ the King Parish on Sunday, August 16. The parish has moved Masses outdoors and requires social distancing and masks because of concern of the spread of the coronavirus. Photo by Rick Musacchio

In the nearly six months that the Diocese of Nashville has been taking steps to avoid the spread of the COVID-19 virus, including a dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday, pastors and parishes have adapted to the new normal. 

“It’s definitely a little bit strange and it took some time to get used to,” said Father Justin Raines, pastor of St. Christopher Church in Dickson. “I stay focused on the fact that the Mass is the Mass and it’s a holy sacrifice that’s taking place.

“In some ways it’s analogous to a priest saying Mass on the hood of a jeep in battle,” Father Raines said. “It’s definitely more difficult for us to gather as a community in this time, but the sacraments are being celebrated and we believe God is present in the sacraments.”

Parish staffs have had to rethink every detail of their operations from how to keep people socially distant at Mass to how many people can be in the office.

Father Jacob Dio, MSFS, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Clarksville, was recently asked by the volunteers who run the parish RCIA program if they can still provide coffee and snacks when classes resume in September. 

He told them the parish can’t provide that right now, because he does not want multiple people handling the coffee pots and other equipment, but people could bring their own coffee and snacks.

Despite the restrictions and precautions in place, pastors say that people seem to be settling in with all the changes.

“All in all, I’ve been really pleased with how things have gone,” said Father Dexter Brewer, pastor of Christ the King Church in Nashville and Vicar General for the diocese.

Christ the King moved its Sunday Masses outdoors to the large field beside the parish school. The Masses are at 8:30 a.m. and 7 p.m.

There have been several adjustments to the times as the summer weather heated up, Father Brewer said. “It was too warm at 11 we realized,” he said, so the morning Mass was moved first to 9 a.m. and then 8:30 a.m. The evening Mass was moved from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. because by then the sun has gone down and the weather is cooler.

Both Masses are well attended, Father Brewer said. “We get between 170 and 200,” and have room for another 100 people. 

“They bring blankets, they bring chairs, they bring umbrellas,” he said, and spread out in the field to maintain the proper social distancing.

“Everyone wears masks. We insist on that from the moment they enter the space and there are signs everywhere, and they’re really good about it,” Father Brewer said. “Even outdoors, when we’re gathered, we keep our masks on.”

“And on a beautiful day … it’s just elegant outside,” Father Brewer said. “Especially at 7 in the evening.”

The parish will continue to celebrate Mass outdoors, Father Brewer said. “Here in Nashville it doesn’t get really cold until the end of November, so we’ll do that as long as we can.”

Not all parishioners want to attend Mass outdoors, Father Brewer acknowledged. “We’ve had some people go to indoor Masses at other parishes, and that’s good,” he said. 

Bishop J. Mark Spalding issued a dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass during the pandemic, Father Brewer noted. “If you feel uncomfortable in any space, you can stay at home.”

At Immaculate Conception, Masses remain in the church with social distancing and other precautions in place, and Father Dio has seen a recent uptick in attendance.

“The last three weekends we have been seeing more people coming to the church,” he said. The two Masses on Sundays have had 160-170 people in attendance and the maximum the church can hold with social distancing is 200, he added.

If that trend continues, Father Dio may add another Mass on the weekends, he said.

At St. Christopher, Father Raines moved weekend Masses from the church to the parish Family Life Center where there is more room for people to spread out. Attendance is about a third of what it was before the pandemic struck, he said.

All three parishes have links on their websites where people can watch livestreamed Masses if they choose not to come to the church.

Parish ministries have also been affected by the pandemic.

“Most of our other ministries are kind of on hiatus still,” while others are meeting online, Father Raines said. “Our St. Vincent de Paul conference is still going strong and serving the less fortunate in our community.”

Early in the pandemic, when utilities were allowing people to put off paying their bills if they lost a job, requests for help from St. Vincent de Paul were slow, Father Raines said. “But now bills are coming due again, and we’re seeing calls pick up again.”

“It’s very important for us to continue to reach out to the less fortunate in our community and our St. Vincent de Paul has found great ways to continue to serve the community,” Father Raines said.

“During the shutdown period, I started doing a lot of videos and things,” he added. “I plan to use social media as a way to make faith formation available and keep in contact with our people.”

The summer is typically a slower time for many of the parish ministries at Immaculate Conception, Father Dio said, but things will begin picking up soon. The parish religious education program and RCIA will both begin on Sept. 13.

Religious education will be a hybrid of in-person classes and distance learning, he said, with the second and eighth grade classes preparing for their First Communion and Confirmation, respectively, having some in-person classes and the other grades working online from home.

Christ the King has moved some of its adult faith formation programs online with video conferencing, Father Brewer said, but home visits to parishioners have been curtailed during the pandemic.

“We stay in touch with parishioners, but we haven’t started visitations to people,” Father Brewer said. He and Associate Pastor Father Anh Tuan Phan still go out to anoint people when needed. “In every way possible we try to make ourselves available to people who may need us.”

But Father Brewer said it doesn’t seem safe to send eucharistic ministers and others to parishioners’ homes yet.

Father Dio was concerned if people stay away from attending Mass in person too long, they might stay away from the Church. That’s why it’s heartening to see people starting to come back to Mass, he said.

“Whenever we’re in the middle of something like this,” Father Brewer said, “you do whatever you can and leave the rest to God.”