Chaplains on front lines of hospital COVID-19 battles

May 12, 2020

At right, Father Rodolfo “Jojo” Cal-Ortiz, chaplain with the Archdiocese’s Catholic Chaplain Corps, works on the frontlines with healthcare workers like Dr. Edward Reece, at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center. Amidst the Covid pandemic, he and other chaplains continue spiritual care for patients, families and staff. (Photo courtesy of Catholic Chaplain Corps)

HOUSTON — Father Rodolfo “Jojo” Cal-Ortiz feels humbled and honored to help patients suffering from COVID-19 with their last Sacraments, the grace of absolution and apostolic pardon. Still, the priest acknowledges that those on the hospital frontlines have to deal with their own fears.

“Before the surge and peak, I was still laying hands over patients, but now we must improvise with our praying for the sick. We communicate with the patients from the doorway or nurses’ station. We have hospital iPads to talk with them and their families,” said Father Cal-Ortiz, who is a chaplain at CHI St. Luke’s Health in the Texas Medical Center.

“It is scary to have such possible exposure to the virus, but I continue to pray that myself and others are protected by God’s grace as we continue to do His work,” he said. “Remembering the martyrs who were so brave in previous plagues also helps.”

Fellow chaplain Father Desmond Daniels, who works at Houston’s Methodist Hospital, recalls recently having to suit up not only with the basic mask, gloves and gown, but also what he called “the box” to visit a patient. A family member had passed away from the coronavirus and this new patient was also suspect and hospitalized.

The priest went into the patient’s room pushing a clear plastic box on wheels that he was inside of and was able to work together with medical staff to administer the Eucharist.

“The box has connected plastic sleeves and gloves that we were able to use for the Communion. We all worked together as a team with medical staff and family. They were about to discharge the patient for home health care,” Father Daniels said.

“The patient was very devout and we could tell after receiving Communion that the patient’s face brightened, blood pressure went down and they were smiling,” he said.

Celebrating the 31-year anniversary of his priestly ordination in 2020, Father Daniels said he has never experienced such dire situations in his three decades.

“But our chaplains meet together in the chapel at least twice a week for prayers, and then we do rounds visiting patients. We are again offering livestream Masses for our patients via their televisions in their rooms,” he said.

Lay chaplain Romani Perera also continues her work at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center and said, “We pray with medical staff and on Divine Mercy Sunday, Father Jojo was able to bring the Blessed Sacrament to the hospital for them.”

The chaplains practice self-care with constant handwashing and other steps to keep their immune system strong. As the medical staff does, they also change and wash their clothes daily and keep fresh shoes in their cars to keep as sanitized as possible.

“There may be fear, but we see how tirelessly the doctors and nurses work and we want to be there for them as well as the patients,” Perera said.
All three chaplains are among those working for the Archdiocese’s Catholic Chaplain Corps (CCC), said CCC director Denice Foose.

“They are among those still being allowed to minister to patients in the hospitals. We also have volunteer hospital visitors who are no longer able to visit the hospitals, so they have been sewing masks, headcovers and other equipment donated to the hospitals. Others are also putting together Hope Baskets with goodies to help keep the staff going,” Foose said.

Taking a different route, Father Anthony Pham, who has assisted with daily Masses at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Houston, decided to help in New York City.

Also a doctor with his own pain management clinic in southwest Houston, Father Pham said he took up New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s televised request asking for those who could to assist. He traveled more than 1,600 miles and was placed on a palliative care team at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens.

“I was able to anoint at least 25 Catholic patients and not all of them recovered,” he said in an interview with KHOU-Channel 11 news.

Father Pham helped families Facetime their loved ones and was often there for their final good-byes, he said. Even for a man of faith, there were tough moments that helped bring perspective.

“Life is very fragile, it can come and go very quickly, and (it taught me) to appreciate the relationships, the family members we have right now,” Father Pham said.

To share their work and prayers, Houston’s CCC created a Facebook page at †