To those who care for the sick, the scene of the Cross provides a way of understanding that even when it seems that there is nothing more to do there remains much to do, because ‘remaining’ by the side of the sick is a sign of love and of the hope that it contains.”
– Samaritanus Bonus, Sept. 22, 2020
Watching somebody suffer in sickness, let alone a dear friend or loved one, counts as one of life’s most difficult challenges. And yet, to remain near someone in their suffering is an act of profound love that brings about indelible comfort in their darkest of hours.
For palliative care doctors like Natalie Rodden, this act of “remaining” with those who are sick and suffering lies at the very heart of her profession. Rodden leads the palliative care team at Centura-St. Anthony 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 disease such as cancer or other serious conditions such as Alzheimer’s.
“Palliative Care and hospice is really about accompaniment, about walking with people and not abandoning them,” Rodden said. “We acknowledge the dignity of the person and work to love them in a way that acknowledges their whole personhood, having an approach that includes physical, emotional, spiritual health, and talking about the interplay between the spiritual and the physical, particularly at the end of life.”
‘A huge hug from the Church’
The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recently issued a letter that beautifully explains the practice of palliative care and its mission to accompany and care for those who are suffering. Samaritanus Bonus: On the Care of Persons in the Critical and Terminal Phases of Life, takes its name from the parable of the Good Samaritan.
“This document as a palliative care doctor feels like a huge hug from the Church,” Rodden said with a smile. “It’s not only a beautiful description of our theology and our understanding of the sanctity of life and the redemptive nature of suffering, it goes further to provide practical applications in our current cultural and societal times of where we where we live and how to apply those principles in today’s culture and today’s medical technology that exists.”
Samaritanus Bonus serves as a powerful affirmation of the essential practice of palliative care, especially when it comes to upholding the dignity of those who are suffering from a critical or terminal illness. It describes palliative care as “an authentic expression of the human and Christian activity of providing care, the tangible symbol of the compassionate ‘remaining’ at the side of the suffering person.” The letter also reiterates the Church’s teachings against euthanasia, which the document states is a “crime against human life” and an “intrinsically evil act, in every situation or circumstance.”
“As a Catholic palliative doctor who witnesses a lot of suffering and is around sick and dying people, a lot more probably than a regular person, [Samaritanus Bonus] was an immensely consoling reminder as to why this work is so important,” Rodden said. “It redoubled my motivation and my passion for being there, for wanting to be truly present at the bedside, for the privilege of walking with people and express that this is a person loved by God, created by God. What a gift it is to be with them and their families during the time when they might be nearing the end of their earthly life.”
A call to serve and love
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 12 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.
I could not do this work without my faith. It’s God calling me to serve and love him through this work.”Natalie Rodden
“I think you go to medical school to fix and to cure, and I think it kind of flips it on its head when you think about the patients I care for, it cannot be fixed or cured many times,” Rodden explained. “It was really a philosophical switch to think about, ‘well, maybe I can’t cure them, but I can help to reduce suffering in whatever form that it may show up and meaningfully connect with these people to guide them toward healing, despite those things we can’t change.’
“I’ve seen how much relief that a palliative consultation can give to a family and their loved ones who might feel so overwhelmed and desperate and intimidated by navigating the health care system and all that’s happening to them in their health,” Rodden continued. “It’s a place of much darkness, I feel, for a lot of people. I tell my team that we go to work and we may encounter a family on the worst day of their life, and it’s another day of work for us. I think God has thankfully given me a lot of inner joy, and I’ve always had a gift of faith, too. I could not do this work without my faith. It’s God calling me to serve and love him through this work.”
A crucial need during COVID
Earlier this year, when the initial wave of COVID-19 began to overwhelm Colorado hospitals, Rodden’s work became even more crucial. Due to COVID-19, Rodden has been seeing patients she wouldn’t normally see. The nature of the 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.”
It’s in these moments and others like them that Rodden has the opportunity to live out the principles of love, compassion and care outlined in Samaritanus Bonus. As the uncertainty of the pandemic brings new challenges to society with each passing day, 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.”