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Serving the sick with courage and faith

“It’s just learning their stories, what brings them here.”

Mary Hazzard is a Catholic lay chaplain at Maine Medical Center (MMC) in Portland.   Every day she is there, she and a priest chaplain spend hours visiting Catholic patients, offering a comforting presence or just someone with whom they can talk.

“How are they feeling about the care they are getting? Are they frightened? Do they have family? Do they have friends whom they can count on for support? Giving them a chance to vent if things aren’t going well or to celebrate if they have gone really well, just accompanying them during the best and worst times of their lives,” Hazzard says.

When she visits rooms, Hazzard says she take her cues from the patients, for instance whether they want to pray, or talk, or even have a chaplain visit at all.

“I try to get my read from each patient. I want to see how God is working in their life, not how I think God should be working in their life,” she says. “I really try to listen to how they talk about God. Is it a very devotional approach that they have or is it something that’s deeply personal? Is the ritual important to them or is it that relationship, and the ritual is not as important? Do they need me to pray extemporaneously with them, or do they want me to pray traditional, devotional prayers?”

For those who wish it, she brings the Eucharist.  She also makes sure the priests know which patients want to see them.

Hazzard works part-time at MMC, sharing time with another lay chaplain, Michael Vaughn.  The pair assists two priest chaplains, Father Amandus Sway, AJ, and Father Anthanasius Wirsiy, who also serve at Northern Light Mercy Hospital, assisting Father Paul Marquis.

Father Wirsiy says what he has discovered through hospital ministry is just how grateful some of the elderly patients are to receive the Eucharist because, due to old age and infirmities, they have not been able to go to Mass to receive it.

“Maybe their children are no longer practicing. Nobody is able to take them to church, and they want to have the sacrament. When you come across those people, the joy you get from them, they enlighten you and make you feel happy,” he says.

Father Wirsiy describes hospital ministry as challenging, and he says it takes courage, but he says it is also a great gift.

“It is wonderful because you feel happy when you are able to give consolation to people who are reeling, people who have been sick. They are going through suffering, and when you talk with them, they are happier. I think that is what is really fulfilling in the ministry,” he says. “Then, the difficult part is standing to see people suffering, seeing people dying, and seeing the family grieving for them.”

At those times, he says, he relies on the Holy Spirit.

“You are going there, and you don’t know what you are going to go and say, but by the time you are leaving, you realize that something happened to a patient, and the patient is kind of happy,” he says. “I think God is giving us the graces to do that.”

Hazzard says, for her, days at the hospital begin by attending shift change, so she can meet with the interfaith chaplains who work overnight and hear what happened.

“If one unit had a particularly difficult night, I try to stop in, just to make a point of saying hello and boosting up the staff if I can,” she says.

All the chaplains then gather in the chapel to pray for five to 10 minutes.

“We pray together for the intentions that have been left by people or needs that we may have. Most of the time is just spent in silence, trying to invite the Spirit into our day. I welcome that time,” she says.

She and the priest chaplain then begin visiting patients, giving priority to those who asked to see a chaplain and those newly arrived.

For priest chaplains, days may be particularly long if they were called during the night to administer last rites to a patient who is dying.

The chaplains’ ministry at Maine Medical Center has continued amid the extra precautions taken because of COVID-19, but Hazzard and Father Wirsiy say the atmosphere has definitely changed.

“The hospital is very lonely as visitors are not allowed. Patients generally want to go back home. Generally, the atmosphere looks very tense, and l am sure the patients are,” says Father Wirsiy.

“I had two patients today say, ‘You don’t know much it means to have you stop.’ I would get that occasionally but two in one day is a first,” says Hazzard.

Although Hazzard says directives related to COVID-19 are changing almost daily, the chaplains are still allowed to visit patients. They must, however, practice social distancing, remaining at the foot of beds.

“I can’t hold someone’s hand who might be frightened.  It feels very artificial to me, but I suppose this is the new normal,” says Hazzard.

For those in COVID-19 isolation, the chaplains can offer phone support but not visit because protective gear must be preserved for health-care providers.

“I’m trying to see this situation as a new opportunity to be creative in sharing our faith and our confidence that God has things well in hand.  I think I’m paraphrasing St. Teresa of Avila who advised, ‘Let nothing disturb you.’  And, then, of course, Romans 8, where we’re told all things work to the good of those who love the Lord.  How can we improve on that?!  We may be looking for a resurrection that takes some time to come, but it will.”

“We see the doctors and the nurses courageously doing their work with a lot of ease. In fact, they give me the courage to go on,” says Father Wirsiy. “We continue to put those dedicated to the care of the sick in our prayers.”

One of the most powerful gifts those who are seriously or chronically ill can receive is the sacrament of the anointing of the sick. Father Benedict Faneye, OP, who currently serves as chaplain at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center, St. Mary’s d’Youville Pavilion, St. Mary’s Residences, and Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, says that is because the sacrament puts patients directly in contact with the Lord.

“There are times when I say the prayer and I just feel the chill, because it is a very solemn moment, especially when patients are in very critical conditions,” he says  “When I go to do the anointing of the sick, I just put everything in God’s hands.”

The sacrament is available to anyone who is seriously ill, facing surgery, or struggling with a chronic condition or the infirmities of old age. Father Faneye says he tries to help those receiving the sacrament understand that through it, they are receiving the healing grace of God.

“It is a beautiful sacrament in the life of the Church. Our Lord Himself has given it to us in all the miracles, healing, in the Bible,” he says.

Still, the chaplains say, many hesitate to receive it, believing it is only for the dying.

“When there is an opportunity, I take time to educate patients on the importance of the sacrament of the sick. I tell them when Jesus came, He did not only preach the Gospel. When we look at the Gospel, He cared for the sick, and that is part of the healing ministry of Jesus, which continues today. The sacrament of the sick is there for anybody who is sick. You receive the sacrament when you are sick as a kind of continuation of the healing ministry of Jesus.”

“I try to say sacrament of the sick for healing so they’re not afraid and so they can avail themselves of it. People think as soon as the priest shows up, it means they are dying, and I don’t want them to feel that way and to know that the intent is healing, but that sometimes, the most perfect healing is being united with God.”

Hazzard says hospital chaplains play an important role, not only to try to lift spirits but, also, to have difficult conversations.

“We are the people they can say things to that they wouldn’t say to anybody else. We’re not afraid to have those conversations with people who have elected to go on DNR (Do not resuscitate),” Hazzard says. “Are you comfortable with the decision? Did you feel pressured with the decision? Do you think your family will support your decision? Have you told your family? Do you want help telling your family?  It’s those type of things because our culture puts death aside. We don’t want to see it, and yet, it awaits us all. The more that we can talk about it and be open about it, the more we actually prepare ourselves.”