I recently had a call from the family of a parishioner who was in the ICU in Glens Falls Hospital. The family was asking if I could visit their loved one who was in serious condition because of COVID-19. I told them I would, if I could. I then called Sister Donna Irvine, the full-time Catholic chaplain at the hospital. If you’ve never met Sister Donna, you should. She’s an inspiration. She’s past the age of retirement but one of the most active and dedicated people I know. Her entire life is dedicated to assisting patients and families in distress.
Sister told me that the current hospital regulations don’t allow even a priest to enter the ICU room of a Covid patient. I asked if there were exceptions. She said no. And then she said: “Let’s see what I can do. I’ll call you back.” (I had a hunch she’d come up with something.) Then I said: “Sister, how are you doing, since you’re in the midst of all this.” Nonchalantly she he said: “O I’m doing fine, Father, I’m doing just fine. Not to worry.” I thought to myself: “She in a combat zone. How good could she possibly be doing?”
Sister called me back within the hour and said that she had arranged for a nurse in that patient’s room to take my call and hold up the phone to the ear of the patient who was longing to pray and to hear the voice of a priest. After a chaotic few minutes of passing a phone back and forth, a nurse said to me: “Go ahead, Father, he’s waiting. Take your time. There is no rush.”
I then spoke loudly to the patient, said prayers of consolation and hope and asked God to give that person the gifts of healing and forgiveness that usually come through the Sacrament of Anointing and the healing touch of the priest who represents the Church. When I concluded, the nurse got on the phone and thanked me. I then thanked her and asked her if she was a Catholic. “Oh no, Father,” she said, “but this has been my privilege and I feel blessed to do this.”
I hung up the phone and was silent for a few moments as I thought about what she said. Not only was she tending to the bodily care of that patient but she was willing to care for a human soul. Catholic or not, she jumped into that deeper dimension of human need. I’ve met many a good nurse in my time, but there was something in the tone and sincerity of her voice that told me she was more than an ordinary nurse. It’s probably that this crisis has propelled her into a new dimension she never thought she’d know. She now had to be family and a spiritual sister to her patients. With professional clergy out of the picture, she became one of the primary sources of bringing spiritual comfort and peace to those under her care.
I’ve seen this kind of new and generous dimension of self-giving on the part of our health-care workers on television reports during this time of quarantine. Nurses and doctors are spending time face-timing families of COVID patients so that they remain connected. I see them holding the hands of the dying when families cannot be present. I hear the stories about them helping families say goodbye to loved ones from their homes. Some offer prayers and reassurance with those sequestered away from the world. Our health-care workers are stepping way past their medical expertise and entering willingly and generously into new modes of compassion. This is one of the blessings of our time that furthers our appreciation and gratitude to them all.
I write this to sing this nurse’s praises and the praises of Sister Donna who is also an unsung hero of our time. I write this to sing the praises of our medical community and the many support people behind the scenes who are going above and beyond. This pandemic is a horror and a blight that brings separation, sadness and death. However, in this darkness, light continues to shine. This nurse and Sister Donna are two of those quiet lights. There are countless others, many known only to God. I thank our good God for their everyday heroism.