BY: MARY ANN STEINER
Just before long-term care facilities closed to visitors for the long season of COVID-19, our 92-year-old mom was discharged from a rehab facility to my home to continue her recovery from a terrible fall. We were just learning the vocabulary of COVID, watching the first wave of the pandemic come at us.
We are not easy roommates. Two hard-headed women, each with a life's worth of opinions, family dynamics and eccentricities. The home health nurses and PTs push hard to help my mom regain the mobility she wants so badly. Her body aches and her spirit alternates between fierce determination or scrabbling hope. My emotional makeup is no prettier: working from home is frustrating, I haven't cuddled my grandkids in months and, even for an introvert like me, this isolation feels punitive.
So when we've put a week behind us and counted our little victories – her graduating from walker to cane, our making vats of potato salad together, she balancing her checkbook while I chip away at emails – we're just two old girls looking for an easy Saturday night. Last weekend we called in a nice meal from a local bistro, broke open a bottle of wine and watched "Titanic."
Nothing's changed since the last time we saw it. The ship still buckles and goes down quickly after crashing into an iceberg. The star-crossed lovers still find, then lose each other. We watch the terrible loss of lives that could have been avoided and the social disparities that gave first-class passengers access to lifeboats while the steerage travelers were held back.
So much of it feels familiar right now: the enormity of the crisis and morality tales of greed and generosity, courage and cowardice, ingenuity and artlessness that are playing out on international and national scales. I can't get past the dilemma of what's essential to the safety and comfort of a few compared to the ongoing existence of many. When the real luxury ocean liner sailed in April of 1912, it took 913 crew members to care for the 1316 passengers on the ship; the well-heeled were further attended by more than 60 personal maids, valets, nurses and nannies.
There isn't much I retain from Philosophy 101, but I do remember that St. Thomas Aquinas had a lot to say about the relationship of existence to essence. Many students of Aquinas believe that he gave priority to existence over essence. And in today's COVID crisis we are primarily concerned with existence – about how we are, individually and as a group. Another Dominican theologian, our colleague Fr. Charles Bouchard, in his most recent article in Health Progress (March-April 2020) affirms that the common good serves both the individual and the community: no one can be considered dispensable in another person's quest for a better life.
How many nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists and support staff does it take to bring one patient into recovery from COVID-19? We hope the answer is as many as they need. How many other nurses, floor managers, surgery technicians and support staff need to be laid off or furloughed for the resources needed to battle the pandemic? We hope the answer is as few as possible.
How many hospitals, clinics and surgery centers have to close temporarily, or permanently, for health care to regain its footing? We hope the answer is explored with careful diligence and that the growing numbers of people who are poor and so very vulnerable receive special consideration.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Catholic health care has expressed its best character – its very charism – in the ways it has shown leadership, made significant sacrifices and risen to the call for care. But when we finally do get through this crisis, the ministry has difficult questions regarding its future: How will the margin-mission equation work when the financial side has become so uncertain? What will we do to permanently eliminate the sin of health care disparities? Will we find the fortitude and vision needed to move forward, calling for new models of servant leadership?
These questions should be asked by everyone in the ministry with courage and in communion with each other. The answers, not yet known in these early days, will have to be discerned with humility, openness and faith in the transformation at hand. We move forward with hope, that gritty and most tenacious virtue.
Copyright © 2020 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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