Samaritanus Bonus and the hope of ‘remaining’

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.”

Natalie Rodden leads the palliative care team at St. Anthony’s North Health Campus in Westminster. The Vatican’s recently issued Samaritanus Bonus letter, which details the critical need for palliative care, felt like a “huge hug from the Church” for Rodden. (Photo provided by Centura Health)

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.

The rise of COVID cases in the spring and the current spike facing Colorado makes Rodden’s role as a palliative care doctor even more crucial, especially because she is seeing many patients who she wouldn’t normally see. (Photo provided by Centura Health)

“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.” 

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.