While care and compassion are hallmarks of health care facilities around the country, Catholic hospitals and health care institutions have something more: prayer. And in a global pandemic with a deadly, ever-changing virus, participants agreed prayer and being present in faith is important.
“We always have to remember that a huge part of that hope, that ministry of Jesus Christ, is that promise of his presence, of a brighter future ahead of us,” said Michael Millard, director of mission integration at CHI St. Vincent in Little Rock. “And even though sometimes it's hard, we have to continue to keep that in the forefront, not only of our minds, but in the minds of our coworkers, in the minds of our patients, that without hope, things really look bleak.”
The Healthcare Evangelization Commission, made up of Catholic hospital leaders and health care workers, met for its annual meeting via Zoom Nov. 10. At least 14 health care representatives joined the meeting. The commission was formed in 2014, spearheaded by Bishop Anthony B. Taylor, to help Catholic leaders stay connected and give them insight on how to operate in the image of Christ.
“I think that networking, we can support each other and inspire each other to bring hope to others,” Bishop Taylor told Arkansas Catholic during the meeting. “Also when we've got the ethical religious directives and to just make sure that we're all on the same page regarding policies and decisions that are made in our hospitals. It’s to be a support network for all of us, and we can all learn from each other.”
Bishop Taylor, Deacon Matt Glover, chancellor for canonical affairs, Dennis Lee, chancellor for administrative affairs, and diocesan bioethicist and commission chairman Father Jason Tyler also attended the meeting.
This year, the conversations primarily revolved around how hospitals are affected by the COVID-19 virus. Chad Aduddell, CEO of CHI St. Vincent in Little Rock, said early in the pandemic the issues facing hospitals were access to personal protective equipment, testing, ventilators and treatments like the antiviral drug remdesivir. While those issues have for the most part been resolved and doctors have a better understanding of the virus than in the spring, the new challenge is employees.
“The thing the public may not understand is we are experiencing a severe staffing shortage, specifically in nursing across the state, across the region, across the country,” Aduddell said. “And so many of our facilities, many of the people on this call today, have expressed that they have had to reach out to agencies to bring in what we call traveler nurses into the state from other parts of the country, and several of our organizations even work internationally and bring in international nurses to supplement our local nursing staffing.”
He also pointed to the idea of “compassion fatigue,” which Millard shared earlier in the meeting.
“Just seeing a lot of really sick people, our caregivers are tired and, unfortunately, we're seeing a lot of COVID patients succumb to this disease and pass away,” Aduddell said.
Millard said “being present” with coworkers has been important.
“Being very, very deliberate about, particularly with the chaplains, spending time on the units, interacting, listening, praying with our coworkers, being available to them,” Millard said. “Just as much as the patients and their families need and are calling for chaplains, we're reminding our coworkers that they can call, that we will be there for them, day or night. They are our congregation. They’re the ones that we minister to daily.”
In a tangible way, CHI St. Vincent Hot Springs has started “compassion rounds,” with a chaplain and several nursing leaders taking a tea cart to a unit under immense stress, giving them a break to decompress.
“As Catherine McAuley called it, ‘a comfortable cup of tea,’” a nod to Religious Sisters of Mercy founder, Catherine McAuley, Millard said. The order founded the former St. Joseph Hospital in Hot Springs.
Jason Rounds, president of CHRISTUS St. Michael Health System in Texarkana, Texas, said they’ve launched a chaplaincy program ministering directly to staff. But the biggest challenge is outside the hospital, getting the community to take the virus seriously and follow guidelines to limit the spread.
“It is that fatigue level of it. They want to get back to restaurants and want to get back to life as normal. And that's just not the case” for now, he said.
Rounds said the key is striking a balance between the severity of the pandemic, but also confidence in the care a hospital can provide.
“We're anticipating that this is far from over, for certainly the next 90 to 120 to 160 days, and planning appropriately, but we are struggling with making sure that our community understands the severity of the situation,” he said.
Aduddell pointed out that while it’s an unprecedented pandemic in our lifetime, sisters in the 1800s responded to health crises to form health care communities.
Sister Anita DeSalvo, RSM, with missions at Mercy Hospital Northwest in Rogers, echoed that point and explained how that call is what Catholic hospitals bring to the pandemic of today.
“Most of our Catholic hospitals stand on the shoulders of religious congregation sisters that have gone before us and have responded to epidemics, crises of all kinds, probably since the 1800s,” Sister Anita said. “What I think that we bring during this pandemic is exactly that. It is that we are not just here to do health care for people. Most of our missions are to bring to life the healing ministry of Jesus. And bringing to life the healing ministry of Jesus is to reach out and be in relationship with persons, not just their physical healing, but their spiritual healing, their emotional healing.”
While many hospitals now allow at least one visitor for patients, some still cannot. Sister Anita said it’s a ministry of supporting people and meeting them in their loneliness.
“It is doing what Jesus did before us -- treating people with respect, treating them in their human suffering, suffering with them, providing for them whatever they need,” she said.
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