Sharing Stories from Frontlines of Healthcare

Stephen Mangione Around the Province

This article is part of a series about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on various aspects of Holy Name Province. Previous articles explored the impact on Mass and prayercollege teachingfraternal lifeoutreach to people in need, emotional health, and elementary schools in parishes where friars provide pastoral and administrative service.

The impact of COVID-19 has been especially taxing on healthcare workers. Below, friars serving in the healthcare field and a lay health professional employed by the Province discuss how the pandemic has affected their ministries and work, and what adjustments have been necessary to keep safe and healthy those under their care.

James O’Connell, OFM
Hospital Chaplain, New York City
Working in a hospital in New York City is a challenge. Working at a hospital in New York City during a pandemic is an unimaginable challenge. At the height of the pandemic when New York City was the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak, James O’Connell, OFM, was in the eye of the storm – spending most of his time at a 900-bed medical center where he is a hospital chaplain, ministering to COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit.

“Hospital ministry is one of presence, which is very Franciscan. Franciscans go where we are needed,” said James, who has served in hospital chaplain ministry for 25 years.

The biggest need was at emergency rooms, which took on the atmosphere of hospital war zones. “No matter, even during a pandemic, the ministry of presence doesn’t change,” said James – although there have been significant changes in how that ministry is administered.

Sacramental life took on a different dimension, according to the Pennsylvania native and Siena College graduate who has been with Holy Name Province since the age of 18. Not allowed into the rooms of coronavirus patients, James had to perform the sacrament of the anointing of the sick from a distance – outside the rooms. He wore a gown, two masks, and other personal protective gear – all while abiding by strict safety protocols. Usually, family members are present with the sick and dying, but all communication with families was done by phone.

“It felt like a combination of the Twilight Zone,” he said, referring to the popular 1960s sci-fi/suspense television show, “and a science fiction movie.”

James has kept balance in his own life by filling it with prayer and a strong support system of friends – and long walks in his Upper East Side neighborhood in New York City, where he lives at the St. Monica Parish rectory. As challenging as his ministry has been over the past several months, James says that the challenges haven’t been close to the struggles faced by healthcare and other essential workers.

“I’m not the nurses who had to go into the rooms,” he said.

Although he talks about the coronavirus in the past tense, James quickly points out that COVID is not over. “Although the situation is changing – I’m getting back to some normalcy and ministering to non-COVID patients – there are too many unknowns. Things are calmer now, but the virus is still here,” said James, who holds a master’s degree in counseling from New York University and has studied clinical pastoral work, in a phone conversation late this spring.

During his pastoral care, he ministered to another group at the hospital – nurses, doctors, and other personnel. “No visitors were allowed, so the medical staff was very much affected by the fact that patients were alone, that they were suffering and dying alone. Doctors and nurses found it painful to watch people die alone,” said James, who celebrates Mass twice a week in a hospital chapel that is broadcast on an internal channel throughout the institution.

“The cheers that New Yorkers gave to healthcare workers every night at 7 p.m. were a sign of gratitude that these hospital workers needed. The doctors and nurses were nothing short of heroic,” added James, who noted that hospital ministry and caring for the sick has always been a big part of the Province and the Franciscan charism, dating back to the days of St. Francis of Assisi, who tended to the sick.

Although COVID-19 continues to lurk -– “there is no medical professional that I have spoken to who says things will get better – and, in fact, most think there will be a surge,” says James -– he believes that healing needs to start at some point.

“The inability to see what’s coming tomorrow, three days from now, or next week is something we have never experienced. Sometimes, we just need to hand it over to Christ,” James said.

Matthew Pravetz, OFM
Director of Clinical Anatomy; Academic Dean for Pre-Clerkship Education,
New York Medical College
Predictability is “comfort food” for any educator, according to Matthew Pravetz, OFM, who has worked at New York Medical College for 37 years. In the case of medical educators, they develop a medical curriculum and establish arenas that enable the observation and evaluation of face-to-face interaction of students with each other and their patients.

This predictability made his dual role as director of clinical anatomy and academic dean for pre-clerkship education business as usual for the 2019-20 academic year – until everything came to a screeching halt in the third week of March.

“That’s when we had to close down all in-person learning events, pull all students out of the hospitals, and send everyone home to far-flung places like California and Canada,” said Matthew. “The result was that the healthcare teams in our school’s teaching hospitals were now short 450 members – not predictable.”

Matthew continued, “Training doctors to practice medicine in the 21st century focuses primarily on assuring the welfare of their patients. But in the initial two weeks of the pandemic, I was personally concerned about assuring wellness – except this time it wasn’t patient wellness, but rather it was the wellness of students themselves.”

Once the first-, second- and third-year students were safe at home – most spent two weeks in quarantine when they reached their destinations – Matthew turned his attention to the task of continuing training remotely and seamlessly, which he says was not predictable when the academic session was planned. Remarkably, the transition to video platforms like Zoom conferencing took two short days.

In New York Medical College’s teaching hospitals, all specialty residents -– doctors who are still in training – were pulled from their specialty programs, explained Matthew – programs such as ophthalmology, obstetrics, urology, orthopedics, and plastic surgery.

“They were pulled from their programs so that they could provide care for the alarming rise of COVID-19 victims who were arriving at the emergency departments. Most had minimal, if any, training in handling critically ill patients in an intensive care environment – again, not predictable,” said Matthew, who lives at Holy Name Friary on New York City’s Upper West Side.

“Then more worry crept in while I tracked, on a daily basis, the personal health of all these students. Still, the critically ill patients were arriving at escalating rates and there were not enough health care providers to treat them,” he added.

At the time, there were many students in the senior class of 2020 who had completed their training and had already been accepted into residency programs, according to Matthew, who said the only thing lacking was that they had not yet formally graduated.

With hospitals desperately in need of personnel and the governor of New York State summoning physicians and nurses out of retirement in an all-hands-on-deck plea, Matthew said it was imperative to get as many members of the senior class onto the front lines.

“Many of them volunteered to go into the workforce, but for one obstacle – they did not have their MD diploma in hand. So, one-by-one, we reviewed the qualifications and clinical experience of each of these students, ultimately and immediately approving and granting MD degrees to more than 150 students, thus legitimizing their practicing of medicine,” said Matthew about the unprecedented and unpredictable act.

He acknowledged that as they went into the din of caring for critically ill patients, literally overnight, worry seeped in about their welfare, and the question weighed heavily on his mind – was this really the right decision, or was giving permission and authorization a reckless move?

Then Matthew was comforted by scripture.

“In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, ‘(d)o not be anxious about tomorrow; tomorrow will look after itself. Each day has troubles enough of its own.’ This time of predicting could plop us near the top of a slippery slope. We need a railing to grab. Coping strategies are necessary,” said Matthew, who added, “But as Jesus says, ‘Set your mind on God’s kingdom and his justice before everything else, and all the rest will come to you as well.’ Now, there’s something predictable!

In July, Matthew retired from his NYMC positions – a transition he had planned before the start of the pandemic.

Amy Stewart-Wilmarth
Director of Health and Wellness, Holy Name Province
She had a routine before the COVID-19 outbreak – traveling on a rotating basis every month to each of the 10 long-term and skilled nursing care facilities in six states to check on the elder friars of Holy Name Province who call these facilities their homes. Amy Stewart-Wilmarth’s visits were very reassuring to the friars – besides a familiar face, it was another set of eyes overseeing their care.

With non-staff personnel banned for several months from entering the buildings, Stewart-Wilmarth has been unable to see friars in person. Instead, she has been making virtual visits with the friars via video calls, as well as regularly checking on their well-being in calls with clinical staff.

“For me, nursing care always works best when you see someone face-to-face. As a nurse, I feel that it is important to connect with our friars no matter what it takes. If that means calling two or three staff members at a facility until I get through, then that’s what I do,” she said.

“You might take a walk with a friar, or sit with him, and notice a grimace when they move a certain way. As you get to know someone, you can see if there are any changes in their health. You can’t see these things in a phone conversation,” added Stewart-Wilmarth, HNP’s director of health and wellness for the past two-and-a-half-years.

“There’s no substitute for in-person visits. But for now, I am relying on the assessments of nursing staff and doctors, and what I can see through FaceTime and Zoom chats. For the most part, the friars have fared well and they look good – other than some of them needing a haircut,” she added.

Stewart-Wilmarth says it’s not only about the physical well-being of friars, but also their emotional state. “In-person visits stopped months ago – which means it shut down visits from other friars and guardians. The video contact has been important to the friars because they are pleased to see a familiar face – and that is good for them mentally,” said Stewart-Wilmarth, who throughout the pandemic has shared mental health advice with Province friars on ways to stay positive and not overdose on media reports.

As someone who is used to zigzagging across the East Coast, from New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts, to Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and Florida – where, in addition to checking friars at the 10 long-term facilities, she also visits the Province retirement houses in Butler, N.J., and St. Petersburg, Fla. – virtual visits and not leaving her home has been challenging.

Although her primary responsibility of managing the care of elder friars has evolved since filling the position, her role has further expanded during the pandemic, with a greater need to support the health of all friars. With the focus on safeguarding friars against the novel coronavirus, education is vital, according to Stewart-Wilmarth, which is why she ramped up her outreach with more frequent email updates containing the seemingly fast-changing safety guidelines and protocols, which she asked guardians throughout the Province to post at their friaries.

She also communicated more frequently with friars at the HNP retirement houses, since residents are among the most vulnerable populations (due to their age and underlying health conditions), and at the larger populated friaries, such as 31st Street in New York City and Arch Street in Boston, which have large numbers of senior friars.

From the outset, she worked with Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM, on Province pandemic strategies based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and other health agencies. She has updated these strategies and protocols as new information becomes available from federal and state health agencies.

More friars are reaching out who normally wouldn’t, according to Stewart-Wilmarth, who says they are asking COVID-related questions not only for themselves but also about aging parents or family members who are traveling.

Stewart-Wilmarth has purchased a series of health handbooks published by the Harvard Medical School Special Health Report, which can be uploaded by friars on their electronic devices. “The friars have been appreciative of the support and interest in their health and well-being, and for the information we send on a regular basis. They find it very helpful and reassuring,” she said.

When restrictions are lifted at long-term care facilities, Stewart-Wilmarth will resume her rotating visits, which will likely take just a little longer since she is planning to travel by car instead of by airplane to minimize her exposure to groups of people in close quarters.

 — Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today. Jocelyn Thomas provided research for this article.