In April 2020, the Catholic Herald spoke with four Catholic healthcare professionals about their experiences on the front lines of the rapidly emerging COVID-19 pandemic. One year and more than 570,000 positive cases (in the state of Wisconsin alone) later, we caught up with Dcn. Gregory Price, Dr. Raquel Farias and Geralyn Breunig to see how this incredible year played out, both in their professional and spiritual lives.
Dcn. Gregory Price
Dying in the midst of a global pandemic has forced many of the patients Dcn. Gregory Price works with in hospice ministry to face the end of their life in a vacuum of human support, as necessary COVID protocols sequestered patients in hospitals or nursing homes without allowing visitors until they were on the brink of death. Many of his patients have had to die without seeing their families, and those families were then left to grapple with the loss of closure that resulted.
“That was the most painful thing to witness,” he said.
If COVID-19 has taught him anything, he said, it’s that “truth is an endangered species — or at least it’s put in great jeopardy.”
And the greatest truth of all — “that God protects us from nothing, but sustains us in everything” — is something that needs to be shared far more than it has been, he added.
“God is with us, suffering with us and, at the same time, holding us secure in a plan that we can’t fully understand, but that we can only surrender to and trust,” he said. “When you look at the Gospels, it’s so important to remember that Jesus never said to his apostles: ‘Do you understand what I said? Do you get it?’ He only said, believe in me. Trust me. And then he hit them over the head with this great line: ‘Be of good cheer for I have overcome the world.’”
“We have to keep our eye on the ball,” he added. “Good Friday is waiting in the wings for all of us.”
Over the last 12-month period, Geralyn Breunig has ridden the COVID-19 wave as it broke against the proverbial shores of her medical/surgical unit at the West Bend hospital where she works as a nurse. Last spring, Breunig said, her unit was virtually empty; COVID cases picked up in the summer, and the peak came in the end of November.
“It was very stressful and overwhelming,” she said of the late fall and early winter. “For me, personally, I didn’t feel like I was being the best nurse I could be because I simply didn’t have the time to do it.”
Safety protocols changed daily, sometimes hourly, she said. “When over half of your patients are COVID patients, it’s very hard. So much of my shift was spent putting on PPE and taking it off.”
Last April, she told the Catholic Herald that, despite her fears about the pandemic, she was strengthened by the image of the Blessed Mother at the Annunciation.
“Mary was not planning on being the Mother of God. She was scared and overwhelmed, but she said yes,” Breunig said at the time. “We weren’t planning on being part of a pandemic, but here we are. And we’re scared and overwhelmed. But we can let this be our Fiat.”
A year later, that sense of resolve has only grown stronger. “This is what I was called to do in this moment,” said Breunig. “Maybe this is why I was called to go into nursing. We plug on.”
Dr. Raquel Farias
As she looked toward her return to work as a pediatric neurologist on May 10, after the birth of her fourth child, Dr. Raquel Farias’ main concern was being able to convey empathy to the parents of the often critically ill children she treats.
“When you have your face uncovered, you can show emotion,” she said at the time. “And now, that’s just so difficult in terms of how we’re going to be able to connect with families.”
The lack of “the human touch” was definitely a struggle this year, Dr. Farias says now. “I realized I’m a very expressive person facially. I use my face and my hands a lot to get my point across. This pandemic has made it difficult to connect, and the human beings within us still very much need to show affection, need to show love, need to show empathy and need to show physical contact sometimes.”
Like all other healthcare personnel, Dr. Farias observes the impact of COVID on her patients even if they themselves do not have the virus.
“In my line of work, sadly, I usually don’t deal with a lot of kids who are conscious,” she said. “I mostly interact with their parents and I can tell how stressed they are because their child is really, really sick. So to add to that the restrictions due to COVID, the limitations in terms of who they can lean on for support — it just makes things so much more stressful.”
On a personal level, Dr. Farias and her husband, Dr. Jose Salazar, a pediatric surgery fellow, experienced a high level of stress as they attempted to keep their young family safe and healthy. One of their daughters tested positive for COVID-19 but was asymptomatic; regardless, the family had to quarantine for a month. And as a working mother, maintaining boundaries between work and family is harder than ever. While at work, she fears for the safety of her kids and their emotional well-being in the midst of a pandemic; at home, she always thinks about work.
Nevertheless, the struggles of the past 12 months have illuminated blessings she may have overlooked otherwise: in the midst of an always busy life, COVID-19 has provided a strange and beautiful space for family bonding.
“This one time, I was really stressed about my kids — but I just started thinking, this is like the best of times and the worst of times. I get a full year with my kids,” she said. “It’s an opportunity many parents don’t have. It’s the best, and I know that I will always cherish these moments — but it’s OK to recognize that it’s also really hard. Both things can be true at the same time.”