Catholic nurses often only spiritual connection to hospitalized patients

A personal care assistant has her hands anointed May 7, 2018, by Father Corneille Boyeye, chaplain at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center in Smithtown, N.Y., during the hospital’s National Nurses Week observance. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Catholics nurses are increasingly filling the spiritual void for patients in their care as hospitals restrict visits from pastoral ministers. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

By Tom Tracy 
Catholic News Service

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CNS) — A tightening of some hospital visitor restrictions on religious ministers and patient family members has begun as the coronavirus pandemic ramps up around the U.S.

“It has been about two weeks — it started out with a limit on the times ministers or family members could come in, then a week later they completely stopped it,” said Maria Arvonio, a night-shift nursing supervisor for a large community hospital near Mount Laurel, New Jersey, and the lower Northeastern regional director of the Chicago-based National Association of Catholic Nurses.

Catholic nurses, Arvonio noted, are now often the only spiritual connection for those in their care.

“The patients can make phone calls, but eucharistic ministers, volunteers and family are not allowed to visit at this time, so Catholic nurses are the only Catholic lifeline to their spirituality,” Arvonio said, adding that historically the church has encouraged strong collegial associations of Catholic nurses.

The Joint Commission, an organization that accredits and certifies over 22,000 health care organizations in the U.S., likewise acknowledges that offering spiritual care to patients is vital toward supporting their health.

“In my opinion, we are the hands and feet of Christ ministering God’s love and healing to our patients, especially now more than ever since patients are unable to receive the Eucharist and spiritual care” offered by extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, Arvonio said, adding the patient disconnect with family members can lead to anxiety and fear of the virus.

Arvonio has participated in United Nations congresses under the auspices of the International Catholic Committee of Nurses and Medico-Social Assistants, which serves as a nongovernmental organization with consultative status.

It is well-accepted that a patient’s faith and spiritual beliefs can affect their healing process and that is why it is imperative that nurses are culturally competent — to be aware of patients’ belief systems in order to support their healing process, according to Arvonio.

“It is even more so now that we pray with and for our patients,” she told Catholic News Service.

“Right now patients don’t have their family members present — at my facility that stopped two weeks prior to the official government order,” she said. “Instead, hospitals are suggesting using cellphones and Facetime platforms with family.”

But how many elderly people can really do that well with electronic communications?

Arvonio said it is during hospital night hours especially, when lonely and often elderly patients feel vulnerable and want someone to talk to, that they open up to the nursing staff.

“At night when I am (working), that nurse at the bedside is really important because the patient has time to think about what they have done over their lifetime. We have to be ready for that,” Arvonio said.

“You should see the eyes of some patients, they are lonely and there is such fear. They don’t have their family there, and they are worried for their family and the family are worried for them.”

Arvonio said medical professionals are concerned if they are potentially exposing themselves and their families to the often-deadly coronavirus. She said nurses must practice universal protection for every patient — but that isn’t always sufficient for some contagious diseases that are not confirmed until test results return.

“Not knowing what this (COVID-19) disease process is, every day hearing something different on the news from one extreme to the next — honestly, without my faith I would not be able to walk in there,” she said.

In the coming days, Arvonio hopes to conduct an online training and mutual support forum for other Catholic nurses who are association members and include one or two clergy, and hopes the association’s regional directors will do the same thing in other parts of the country.

“When you are out there by yourself, you are a sitting duck, but when you are in the circle with the Blessed Mother and with your colleagues, you are safe; if we stay strong in the sacramentals and watch the Mass online, we can do this,” she said.

“This is a time not to listen too much to the news but stand on the word of God, to give glory to him and encourage nurses to stay close to God,” Arvonio added.

In Cleveland, psychiatric mental health nurse Clarice Marie DeJesus oversees a new chapter of the National Association of Catholic Nurses while working at a mental health lockdown facility in Cleveland’s inner city.

Though the city’s coronavirus spread there is far less than other big cities, DeJesus said the hospital checks patients’ temperatures twice daily and has plans to cordon off whichever floor of the hospital is first found to have a COVID-19-positive patient, then designate that the coronavirus treatment area.

Staff also are being screened daily upon arrival.

“I have talked to the nurses I work with, and I have to say that for those of us who have nourished our spiritually, it is business as usual and we can stay focused,” DeJesus said.

“I have found people are becoming full of charity and that this is bringing out the best of people. When you work in a hospital you are always on guard about things that can be transmitted but obviously we have upped the game (for coronavirus) but our mentality is the same,” she told CNS.

On a personal level, DeJesus is in the process of becoming a lay Franciscan, and she said St. Francis offers a great example for enduring this pandemic. She is praying the family rosary with her elderly parents by telephone to protect their safety.

Her personal devotions include prayers to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, St. John Paul II and Blessed Hannah Chrzanowska, a 20th-century Polish nurse beatified in 2018.

“This is a great opportunity for evangelization, the type of evangelization that St. Francis spoke of when he said, ‘When necessary, use words,'” DeJesus said. “People are looking for charity and will be more receptive now to works of charity love and service.”

Some Catholic health care professionals just accept that they will be exposed to the coronavirus, according to Dr. Robert Tiballi, an infectious disease specialist, who is a member of the Catholic Medical Association. Based in Elgin, Illinois, near Chicago, he has closed his private office and moved from face-to-face visits to telemedicine.

“It’s not a question of if, but when I will get infected — I may have already been so, not sure because we can’t get testing,” Tiballi told CNS.

“It’s very similar to a mid-1980s when I was working with AIDS patients in Manhattan and was exposed via a needlestick injury and we had no ability to test at that time. Our state of Illinois makes all testing go through public health which is an incredible bottleneck, and patients are upset they cannot get testing.”

On a personal note, Tiballi said he prays the rosary daily for all his patients past and present and future and dedicates his day’s work to the Lord.

“When I am not exhausted in the evening I try to pray for reparation, praying … for my sins, for the sins of church leaders, for the unbelief of the world and for sins of the clergy against the young and vulnerable.”

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