Providing care in isolation

Catholic palliative care doctor on accompanying COVID-19 patients

How can doctors help a patient feel cared for when they’re not even allowed near the patient?

Doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers are facing immense challenges in caring for patients diagnosed with COVID-19, the highly-contagious respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus. The many restrictions that have been put in place are designed to limit the risk of exposure to the virus for those working in the hospital, but they also create new challenges to providing patient care.

For palliative care doctors like Natalie Rodden, these challenges are especially unique. Rodden leads the palliative care team at St. Anthony’s North Health Campus in Westminster, which consists of her, a social worker and a chaplain. In her role, she typically works with patients who are dealing with chronic illness and their family, helping to provide relief from the symptoms for the patient and relief from the stress for the family.

“We say in palliative care that we hope for the best but we prepare for the worst,” Rodden told the Denver Catholic. “We try to help patients and families work through this.”

Coming from the Latin word palliare, which means “to cloak” or “to shield,” palliative care doctors like Rodden are trained in helping to support patients and their families through serious illness, whether it be a chronic diseases such as cancer or other serious conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

Natalie Rodden, left, leads the palliative care team at St. Anthony’s North Health Campus in Westminster. Her job has taken on a new meaning amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo provided by Centura Health)

“I spend a lot of time working in the intensive care units, helping families and working with patients who may have a relapse of a disease or a new diagnosis of a serious disease or a traumatic situation happen and helping them cope,” Rodden continued. “We look at the suffering a patient experiences from a physical component, but also the emotional, social and spiritual aspects as well. It’s very holistic, and I think it’s really about promoting the dignity of the person in the midst of a serious illness.”

In the midst of dealing with COVID-19 patients, her job takes on a new meaning. Not only is Rodden unable to connect with the patient on a personal level, because of the restrictions, family members are also unable to visit their loved one in the hospital. A big part of Rodden’s job is to connect with her patients and families on a personal level in face-to-face interactions. Now, virtually all of that connection is done remotely.

“It’s hard because I’m usually at the bedside holding the patient’s hands and looking them in the eye and doing a lot of emotional connection with them, but non-verbally, just seeing where they’re at. That’s immensely challenging over the phone,” Rodden said. “It’s very difficult when you can’t be seeing your loved one every day.”

At a time like this, Rodden relies on her faith in the Lord to get her through the long days. It grounds her in her own humanity and the understanding that ultimately, despite her best efforts as a doctor, God is in control.

“I don’t think that I could do my job very well, if at all, without my faith,” she said. “I think in this disease, I realize so much more my littleness, I realize my lack of control. I think as doctors, we like to feel this semblance of, ‘I know what’s going on. I can figure this out. I can make this better.’ And I don’t know all the time that I can make it better.”

Originally from the Louisville, Kentucky area, Rodden relocated to Colorado in 2016 after accepting her current position with St. Anthony’s. For a palliative care doctor, the timing was quite interesting: As Rodden recalls it, “I took my palliative boards on a Monday, which was the last test of twelve years of school. And then on Tuesday, the next day, physician-assisted suicide became legal [in Colorado].”

When she entered medical school, Rodden was originally interested in becoming an oncologist. It was during her residency rotations at a cancer center, however, that Rodden gained deeper insight into the kinds of suffering people have to endure when dealing with something like a cancer diagnosis, which began to lead her down a different path.

“I think palliative care kind of chose me,” she said. “I realized that so much of patient suffering was beyond just managing with chemotherapy. We were forgetting who the person was behind the cancer diagnosis.”

In addition to helping patients and families better cope with their situation, Rodden also serves as an advocate for the patient and helps to facilitate excellent communication between them and their families.

“Our job hasn’t changed,” Rodden said. “Actually, our job has become a bit busier because there’s a lot of patients coming in who are facing a potentially very serious illness. It’s been a real beautiful time to serve as a palliative care doctor, but it’s hard.”

In keeping with her call as a palliative care doctor, Rodden strives to ensure that each patient is known as more than just a diagnosis and that their inherent dignity remains intact. This is especially important for those who are diagnosed with COVID-19.

“I don’t think that I could do my job very well, if at all, without my faith. I think in this disease, I realize so much more my littleness, I realize my lack of control. I think as doctors, we like to feel this semblance of, ‘I know what’s going on. I can figure this out. I can make this better.’ And I don’t know all the time that I can make it better.”

“We want to know them as a person. And we want the whole staff to know them as a person because this disease has a lot of stigma with it, [as we’ve seen] all around in our community,” she explained. “I want to help the whole hospital remember that this patient is a person.”

For COVID-19 patients in particular, strict isolation has become the norm. Family members are not allowed in the room with their loved one. Sometimes, multiple family members are hospitalized at the same time. The human connection and feeling of being cared for that is so important for people suffering from illness has become limited. Despite these challenges, Rodden and her team do what they can to make the patients and their families feel loved.

“Our team tries to creatively think of ways to love these patients and families in the hospitals,” she said. “Sometimes that’s having the families send in photos or letters or notes, maybe colored drawings by kids.  We post those in the patient’s room for them. We’ve had family members make signs and we’ve helped figure out where they can stand so that they can show them through the window and the family member can see them from there. Any way we can try to create opportunities for connection for families, during this time in particular.”

Due to COVID-19, Rodden has been seeing patients she wouldn’t normally see. The nature of this virus and the fact that it can be dangerous to people of all ages, regardless of health background, makes for a tough reality check in people – Rodden included.

“For a lot of these patients, they are previously healthy. It’s very different than my typical patients I see in palliative care who have had chronic illnesses for many years and are not a stranger to the health care system,” Rodden explained. “For a lot these patients and their family members, their only exposure to hospitals might be through television shows or what the media is portraying right now. They don’t know what it what it means to be connected to a ventilator.”

In this trying and difficult time for our society, doctors have perhaps one of the toughest jobs. However, like many healthcare workers, Rodden knows that she’s right where she’s supposed to be.

“A lot of us are exhausted, but we wouldn’t imagine being anywhere else,” she said. “It’s why we went into health care, is to be like helping at a time like this.”

COMING UP: Signs of hope for the suffering

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Signs of hope for the suffering

Priests share experiences of visiting and anointing COVID-19 patients

One night, Father Emanuele Fadini, FSCB, was called to anoint a COVID-19 patient on the verge of death. It was the first time Father Fadini had witnessed the symptoms of COVID-19 he had only read about in the news; the patient was gasping for air and unable to breathe, almost as if he was drowning.

Up to that point, all of the COVID-19 patients he had visited in the hospital were unconscious. This man was not.

“He was in agony,” Father Fadini recalled. “That was the only time I saw a conscious patient diagnosed with COVID-19 in the ICU.”

Because the patient was still conscious, Father Fadini was able to hear his confession, anoint him with the oil, and give him what the Church calls “food for the journey,” or the viaticum, in the form of the Eucharist.

He also gave the patient his rosary. He told Father Fadini that he used to pray in the past, but then he stopped. Father Fadini encouraged the patient to hold it, and if he could, to pray with it, assuring him that the Blessed Mother “was there, more real than myself and was going to receive the tears of this man and bring them to Christ, preparing his soul and body for the Lord.”

The patient did not survive. When Father Fadini left him, he did so bearing the pain of his gasping and his panting. At the same time, he gave thanks to God.

“Thanks God that you are,” he said. “Because this man found you again.”

Quietly, priests have been visiting sick and dying patients in hospitals, offering the sacraments to those who need them most. While some hospitals are not allowing priests to visit those infected with the novel coronavirus, priests remain ready and willing to go to the ones that are. Anytime, day or night – if they receive a call, they go.

Medical professionals and researchers around the world are learning more about the novel coronavirus with each passing day, but its increased threat for older people and those with underlying health conditions seems to be a general consensus among them. As hospitals within the Archdiocese of Denver began to admit more COVID-19 patients, the Vicar for Clergy asked the younger priests of the archdiocese to volunteer to administer the Sacraments of the Sick to those who needed it.

Father Fadini, associate pastor at Nativity of Our Lord Parish in Broomfield, is just one priest of many within the archdiocese who freely volunteered.

“I have visited about 15 sick people with COVID so far,” Father Fadini told the Denver Catholic. “I am provided with all the gear. When I visit the hospital, I follow the procedures. I know that I am exposed to a risk. And definitely my precautions are not to put anyone else at risk that I am in touch with later.”

Father Fadini has been visiting COVID-19 patients in Centura Health facilities near his parish, where he has heard confessions and administered anointings of the sick to those who request it. The opportunity to do so, he said, has “been a grace for my priesthood.”

The power of anointing

As a priest, besides the specific precautionary measures, Father Fadini’s modus operandi for visiting a person with COVID-19 remains the same as when he visits a person suffering from any other illness.

“When you see a sick person, you approach that person as Christ, as the living body of Christ,” he said.

In addition to the traditional anointing with oil that is commonly associated with the anointing of the sick, this sacrament also includes the viaticum, or “food for the journey,” in the form of the Eucharist. However, if a person is not conscious, the priest can only perform the anointing with the oil.

In one recent visit to a hospital, Father Fadini anointed a COVID-19 patient who was unconscious.

Priests of the Archdiocese of Denver have been quietly visiting patients diagnosed with COVID-19 in hospitals that allow them and performing anointings of the sick.

“I put on the full gear, the particular mask and the gown. When I entered, I saw the person was unconscious. Totally unconscious. So I gave the anointing. I could only give the anointing, of course, at that point,” he recalled.

This particular visit, however, spurred in him a memory of a woman he anointed two years ago who recovered from her illness.

“[I remembered] a previous experience of another sick person I visited two years ago who told me that when she received the anointing, she clearly also felt in her body a startling recovery,” he recounted. “Of course, this is a sort of a grace that is given to everybody. We know that it can work without visible effects, and especially spiritually.”

Keeping in mind the experience of this parishioner from several years ago, Father Fadini also prayed for the healing of the COVID-19 patient he anointed, and eventually she recovered. “I was moved by the tears of the husband, who was assisting with the rite over the phone, which was held close to me by the doctor. His tears brought me to dare to implore for her healing.”

In her gratitude, she wrote a short letter to Father Fadini.

“She wrote that the anointing, my visit and the faith of all the ones who prayed around her for her literally kept her here on Earth,” he said.

A call to conversion

The Lord is always calling his people to conversion. In normal, everyday life, the call to offer trials and sufferings up to him is ever-present. However, in the midst of this pandemic, when fear and uncertainty are rampant, this call to conversion becomes even more urgent.

But what is the basis of this fear? Catholics and Christians rely on the hope evident in the resurrection of Christ to cast aside all fear and doubt. This fact is especially pertinent in the Easter season the Church is currently in. Even so, the fear of death and suffering lingers, especially as the numbers of those people who have died as a result of COVID-19 dominate headlines.

However, as Father Francesco Basso puts it, this fear is a deception of the enemy. It is not from God.

“Death is not the problem. We will all die,” Father Basso said. “In this Easter time, the resurrection announces that death has already been destroyed. The real problem is the fear of death, which is what comes from the suggestions of the devil.”

Father Basso is the parochial vicar at St. Louis Parish in Englewood, and like Father Fadini, he has also been visiting COVID-19 patients and administering anointings of the sick. He responds to calls from Swedish Medical Center in Denver and various nursing homes in the Denver area.

“When you see a sick person, you approach that person as Christ, as the living body of Christ.”

Rather than waiting until a person is on the verge of death, Swedish Medical began calling priests in the morning to come and anoint those who are infected with COVID-19.

“This was a smart idea,” Father Basso said, “because this means that we are not obliged to wait for the last moment when they are unconscious.”

In visiting those suffering from COVID-19, Father Basso has witnessed hearts open to hearing and embracing the love of God. He encouraged one man who was Catholic but had been away from the Church for years to return. He heard the confession of a woman who had also been away from the Church for many years and invited her to receive the mercy of God.

“Those cases are truly incredible,“ Father Basso said.

The call to conversion extends beyond just those infected with COVID-19, however. It is just as evident in the priests who are visiting the sick and offering prayers for an end their suffering. Just before the cases of COVID-19 began to spike in Colorado, Father Fadini became very ill. He was tested for the virus, but the test came back negative. However, he believes that the Lord used the suffering he endured in his illness to prepare him for what was to come.

“It brought me to really change my way of praying and suffering, brought me to reciting some psalms to really ask the Lord for life,” Father Fadini said.

“Why do I bring this up? Because when I recovered, I resumed the visits the sick and the hospital staff,” he continued. “That experience brought me again to feel compassion for the pain of the people and I stopped being in a hurry, because when I was sick the feeling to be a burden for others was painful, while the best balm for me was to see my religious brothers and friends ‘wasting’ their time with me, who was unable to do anything for them.

“Christ is using my humanity. He is not sending a robot consecrated as a priest. With the affections that I feel for today, he sends me. It’s Christ calling me to meet Him in the person who suffers and is sharing in the cross of Christ.

“And in doing so, He is molding my heart, forming me to see that He is the true fulfillment. And because of that, I can be also a sign of hope for others.”