BY NOLAN JOHNSON, ED Physician Assistant
“I think I have it…”. The statement arising from my young patient hovered in the air before me. The “it”
in question is, of course, COVID19. In this first week of government mandated stay-at-home orders, I
have cared for many similar patients expressing a similar fear. As I consider her question, I become
faintly aware of the bustle of chaotic activity behind me in the Emergency Room. Her fear is
understandable, and the eerie atmosphere in the ER reflects the fear of our population. Outdoor
isolation tents have sprung from the ground awaiting an influx of the coughing, feverish, and hypoxic.
Boxes upon boxes of plastic gowns, yellow surgical masks, large face shields, and a plethora of hand
sanitizer are stacked in corners, on desks, in carts. Without nametags or a brief glance at an uncovered
face, healthcare providers share the same amorphous, unidentifiable, scrub-blue shape of the full
ensemble that is personal protective equipment. Our healthcare team is united with our patients in a
tamed anxiety as we await the unknown.
I am reminded of the apostles facing a similar anxiety after the death of our Lord on Good Friday. Jesus
had revealed Himself as the Messiah, the Anointed One, the righteous King of Israel that had been long
awaited; yet, quite suddenly, He was gone, dying on a cross in apparent shame. Scripture tells us, “For
they did not yet understand the scripture that he had to rise from the dead” (John 20:9). Imagine the
apostles’ pain, hopelessness, and depression as they faced the unknown: a suffering they did not yet
In our current time, we, as Catholic healthcare providers, face a similar dilemma. How do we respond to
the vast suffering placed before us? Indeed, the idea of redemptive suffering is unique to the Catholic
faith. We are, after all, called to share in the suffering of humanity as the body of Christ. But in a modern
pandemic? This is uncharted territory.
St. John Paul II, in Gaudium et spes, provides guidance. “The Law of the Gift” outlined by the newly
minted saint states, “man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself”. He goes on:
“We are at our best, we are most fully alive and human, when we give away freely and sacrificially our
very selves in love for another.” During this Lent and Easter season, what better example of this
sacrificial love exists outside of Christ, the Divine Physician, on the Cross? What better time than Lent,
Easter, and the COVID19 pandemic to express this love through medical practice?
As Catholic providers, we are all called to “give away freely and sacrificially our very selves” for our
patients. Some of us will be required to perform great deeds: a timely intubation, advanced ventilator
strategies, and compassionate palliative care come to mind. These are laudable feats; yet, most of the ill
will need simple acts of love: an encouraging word, an extra five minutes explaining test results, an extra
cup of juice or snack from the food pantry, a silent prayer, empathy for a heroin addict, a reassuring
telemedicine call, endless patience. As St. Mother Teresa observed, “Not all of us can do great things,
but we can do small things with great love.”
“Am I going to die?” asked the young woman in front of me. I glance again at her reassuring vitals and
easy breathing. A hand on her shoulder (in PPE) and some reassuring words cause her tears to fade
away. Did she require great acts of medical knowledge? A rapid, life-saving intubation? No, just a small
act that reflects our Savior’s infinite love.