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COVID year finds health care ministries relying on resilience, faith and, surprisingly, technology

From her room in Dooley Center, Sister Evelyn Gregory, OSB, has a conference with the prioress via tablet. From the outset of the pandemic, leadership of the Benedictine Sisters’ community ensured that every Sister in Dooley Center had an iPad or tablet to access meetings, prayer and other communications via Zoom, FaceTime and Facebook. Photo courtesy of the Benedictine Sisters of Atchison

by Therese Horvat
Special to The Leaven

As stealthy, contagious and consuming as the coronavirus is, managing care delivery during the pandemic has reinforced several important lessons for leaders and pastoral care staff of Catholic health care ministries across the archdiocese. This includes the recognition that being Catholic facilities makes a significant difference during these challenging times. 

Resilience of the human spirit

“Resilience” has been the word of the year for Krista Hahn, executive director of Marian Dental Clinic, an SCL Health safety net provider in Topeka.  The clinic has remained open throughout the pandemic, providing only emergency dental care in the early months.

Staff developed a telephone hotline to screen patients experiencing dental pain and to schedule same- or next-day appointments. The clinic resumed routine and restorative care in June and continues to offer the hotline and emergency services.

“Even though eight-hour days sometimes feel like they are 16 hours long, our staff has proven they can adapt and make changes, while continuing to provide quality dental care,” said Hahn.

From her perspective of providing pastoral care, Sister Barbara Conroy, OSB, credits the ingenuity of the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica of Atchison in keeping connected those living in their monastery and residents in Dooley Center, the nursing facility serving elderly and frail Sisters. Important as it has been to safeguard the Sisters’ physical health, preserving a strong sense of community — a Benedictine hallmark — has been as critical.

Technology to the rescue

From the outset, leadership of the community ensured that every Sister in Dooley Center had an iPad or tablet to access meetings, prayer and other communications via Zoom, FaceTime and Facebook. Despite quarantines, the Sisters remain connected and informed.

At Villa St. Francis, the skilled nursing facility in Olathe sponsored by the archdiocese, activities staff have assumed the role of IT specialists as they facilitate visits of residents and their family members via electronic devices. Rodney Whittington Jr., CEO/administrator, said that Villa St. Francis has also ramped up use of technology for communications with staff.

In addition, Villa is piloting a newly developed piece of equipment to check staff in and out of the facility, screen for COVID and take temperatures.  

Retaining the human connection

In his 23 years working in nursing homes, said Whittington, he has never seen such mental and emotional fatigue as that stemming from the coronavirus. This is true for residents, family members and staff.

“It is so difficult to have our residents isolated,” he explained. “Nine months is a long time to go without seeing and hugging their loved ones. Among lessons learned, I wish we could include identification of ways to allow these personal interactions and still be compliant with our regulatory agencies.”

In the current restricted environment at Villa, staff and residents have developed even closer bonds. They offer one another encouragement and support. This is important for employees who can’t escape the coronavirus. They face stress on the job, then return home and hope they don’t contract COVID.

“The virus has robbed people of their ability to relax and participate in regular downtime activities with family and friends,” said Whittington. “It’s completely changed our lifestyles at home and at work.”

To buoy spirits in Dooley Center, pastoral care providers in protective gowns and masks roll out the COVID Consoling Cart and distribute snacks. Villa St. Francis has brought in food trucks as one way of recognizing staff for their outstanding service. The Benedictine Sisters created a convenient food pantry of staple items to minimize the number of times employees frequent grocery stores. Employees of Marian Dental Clinic can benefit from emergency financial assistance offered by SCL Health.

The sustaining power of faith

Having a director of spiritual health and members of two religious congregations serving at Villa St. Francis has made a world of difference in Whittington’s estimation. Opportunities for prayer are available for residents, families and staff. Every day, Msgr. Robert Burger, chaplain, dons personal protective gear for one-on-one visits with residents. He offers Mass that is transmitted via closed circuit television.

Hahn appreciates that being a Catholic facility affords Marian Dental Clinic the freedom to foster prayer and reflection among staff and with patients. Team members miss the two Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth who helped facilitate this and who have self-isolated due to their own vulnerability to the virus. However, said Hahn, “God has carried us through this whole thing as our protector.”

Sister Barbara affirms that their faith has been a sustaining power for the Benedictine Sisters, especially those often quarantined in their Dooley Center rooms because of the coronavirus. The fact that they can receive the Eucharist brought to them by pastoral care team members feeds their spiritual lives.

“Our commitment to community and our faith is what is helping us get through all of this,” she said simply.

Cause to celebrate

Recognizing that it’s important to keep joy alive and to retain some semblance of normal, the Benedictines celebrated the birthdays of two Sisters who turned 100 in September. Although delayed by a temporary quarantine, the Atchison community also continued its tradition of a songfest with pie to usher in Advent.

In the midst of the pandemic, Marian Dental Clinic is conducting a capital campaign and expansion project. Villa St. Francis is anticipating major renovations to begin in early 2021. 

In addition to lessons learned, Hahn believes that good things will emerge from the experiences of the pandemic. Whittington sees this as already occurring with the outpouring of prayers, calls and text messages from family members and former residents, and financial support from donors.

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The Leaven

The Leaven is the official newspaper for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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