Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 70(3) August 2020

Coronavirus: The Chaplain’s Tale

Fortunately, I was present in my local hospital when a Catholic priest was required to administer the sacrament of Extreme Unction to a Covid-19 positive patient. “Would I attend?”. The question to ask is: “Why wouldn’t I?” For someone ordained on the Feast of St Camillus de Lellis, the answer to ministering to the sick is always yes, regardless of their symptoms. The call was urgent as the patient was about to undergo intubation.

Fully dressed in PPE and armed with my stole, prayer book and holy oil, I met the patient: a young woman who was having difficulty breath­ing. Her family were on the phone, very distressed, and were (I thought) reassured that a Catholic priest was present. They asked that I administer the last rites because she was about to undergo intubation. In fact, she was to undergo a tracheostomy.

As I looked into her eyes, it was only then and probably for the first time in my life I had seen such intense fear. At this moment I remembered not the teachings of Our Lord but the words of Margaret Thatcher: “Now is not the time to wobble.” I was momentarily nervous. The perceived bravado of entering the isolated ward was gone. The patient and her family knew that those going into ITU had a 50 percent chance of dying. I tried to reassure her (and her family) of the healing power of the sacrament. The prayers were said and holy oil administered. I fled, stripped and scrubbed.

Six weeks later I was telephoned at home and asked to visit a patient in ITU. It was the same patient I had seen. Kitted out in full PPE with double gloves worn, I entered the room and was taken aback by the tracheostomy tube. She could not receive the Blessed Sacrament. The Filipina nurse joined me in saying prayers. The patient could not respond verbally, but her eyes showed she was grateful. She crossed herself and I left.

The power of prayer and the sacraments must never be underestimated or ignored. Faith and sound professional medical care will carry our patient through her days of isolation.

Fr Alan Burgess is Parish Priest of St Michael and all Angels, Locksbottom, Kent