Dr. Lloyd Pierre of the Sancta Familia Medical Apostolate in Omaha checks on a patient with possible COVID-19 symptoms April 8. Pierre met the patient outside while he was still in a vehicle to protect other patients and staff from possible exposure to the coronavirus. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

News

‘Faith over fear’: Catholic healthcare workers see their jobs as callings

Healthcare workers are on the frontlines of the war against COVID-19.

They’re also among the casualties of the pandemic: Hundreds of medical workers from across the world have died from the illness, and thousands more have been infected.

Despite the obvious risks, most continue to do their jobs, putting their patients first. It’s just part of what they do, according to four Catholic healthcare workers in the Omaha area. They say their profession’s a calling, a way to care for others that is deeply steeped in their faith.

“We’re God’s tools in taking care of his patients,” said Dr. Lloyd Pierre of Sancta Familia Medical Apostolate in Omaha. When patients walk into the nonprofit apostolate, staff members “see Jesus walking in the door,” he said.

Risks are part of what they routinely deal with and try to manage, said Pierre, a member of St. Peter Parish in Omaha. Medical professionals have to be there to care for their patients, he said. “If we don’t, who will?”

FAITH AND SCIENCE

Sancta Familia, which employs 26 people, has been carefully following guidance from local, state and federal health officials, Pierre said. The medical apostolate keeps patients separated in zones, based on coronavirus risk. Under that system, patients with possible COVID-19 symptoms are seen and tested outside.

The Sancta Familia building is equipped with an isolation room, with negative air pressure, “built exactly for situations like this,” Pierre said.

The zoning allows Sancta Familia to continue to see patients for routine visits, such as annual physicals or to treat hypertension or high cholesterol. And telehealth is an option for patients who can be treated remotely.

Using a sound, scientific approach is especially important now, to lower risks and counter hype and fear, he said. “Medics cannot let fear affect what we do.”

Healthcare workers like those at Sancta Familia know their work innately involves risks, but they do their best to minimize those risks and “trust that God will take care of us,” Pierre said.

“Medicine is a calling, not just a profession,” that stems from “a desire to care for people,” he said. “If you’re doing it for any other reason, you shouldn’t be doing it.”

CHALLENGES OF TREATMENT

Dr. Jim Sullivan, an anesthesiologist at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, is part of a team at the hospital that cares for COVID-19 patients. He also was part of a team that cared for Ebola patients brought to the center in 2014.

One of the hardest things about treating COVID-19 patients is the unknown character of the disease, said Sullivan, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Omaha.

“This isn’t something we’ve done before,” he said. “When someone comes in with a heart attack, we know what to do. There’s a bunch of books on it.”

At Nebraska Medical Center and elsewhere, healthcare workers are trying different treatments for patients and caring for them as best they can while patients’ bodies get a chance to heal, Sullivan said.

In the most extreme cases, patients are sedated to keep them from moving and to keep oxygen levels up, he said. Ventilators facilitate breathing and keep the patients alive.

The Nebraska Medical Center’s experience with Ebola patients “gave us a good warm-up in protective equipment and planning,” Sullivan said. The hospital had been getting ready for patients for weeks, he said.

“Yes, we all have concerns about getting sick. The good news is that we have had time to plan ahead.”

ONLY WAY TO WORK

As a physician, he doesn’t separate his faith from his work, he said. “It’s the only way I do my job.”

He says he does all he can to help patients and turns to God for help.

When he goes to work, Sullivan said, he knows he has the prayers of others supporting him, including those of his wife, Erin, and their 10 children, ages 4 to 23.

“I know I get a rosary for me every day,” he said. Prayers to St. Michael have been his shield, Sullivan said, and the Memorare prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary has been his sword.

Sullivan said he protects his family from possible exposure by following protocols at work to stay safe, including washing hands multiple times a day and using hand sanitizer.

When working on the COVID team, he said, his regimen would be to shower before going home or immediately when he enters his house, and to change his clothes in his garage and put them directly in the washing machine. He would also take his temperature twice a day, and if it climbs above 100 degrees, he would isolate himself.

PRUDENT AND CHARITABLE

Deacon John Zak and his wife, Mary, of St. Peter Parish in Omaha, both are healthcare workers. She is a home healthcare nurse. He is a respiratory therapist at CHI Health Mercy Hospital in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Mary Zak said she is careful to follow recommended guidelines for avoiding the spread of the coronavirus, so she doesn’t risk her patients’ health.

She stayed home recently when she had a fever.

Zak said her Catholic faith helps her to be prudent and charitable in caring for others. It also gives her purpose, she said.

“You have to know who you are and where you are supposed to be,” she said. “God puts you in a place for a purpose.”

That purpose is “not necessarily something bold and dramatic,” she said, but more likely involves day-to-day situations a person could improve.

GOD IN CONTROL

The healthcare field tends to attract people who are caring and empathetic, said Deacon Zak, who has been a respiratory therapist for 42 years and oversees others on his staff. They have always been generous with their time, doing whatever it takes to care for patients and each other, he said.

He said he likes working at a faith-based health organization, especially in times like this. Mercy Hospital has plenty of reminders of his Catholic faith, including crucifixes on the walls and a chapel situated between the emergency and critical care units. The chapel has a Divine Mercy image of Jesus with the words “Jesus, I trust in You.”

A Mission Services department sends encouraging messages, reminding employees that God is in control and urging them to take care of themselves.

Deacon Zak keeps a holy card on a bulletin board in his office with a quote from St. Francis de Sales. That quote helps guide his day, he said.

It reads: “Do not fear what may happen tomorrow; the same loving Father who cares for you today, will care for you tomorrow and every day. Either He will shield you from suffering, or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, then, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginings.”

“Faith over fear,” is how Deacon Zak sums it up.