A Time for Catholic Hospitals?

I was deeply touched, and more than a little troubled, by Brad Miner’s column this past Monday, in which he discussed an upcoming cancer test.  For those of us who have been in his situation, such stories bring back disturbing, sometimes traumatic, memories.  It reminds me of that lyric from a Tom Petty song: “The waiting is the hardest part.”

Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part

From my experience, I would say that the best thing people can do is pray.  There are times in life when people say, “I will pray for you,” and it sounds like “Have a nice day.”  But when you are facing a dark, potentially fatal, unknown future, knowing only that, either way, it holds something other than the life you had planned to live, there are few things more comforting than hearing people earnestly say, “I will pray for you” or, “We are all praying for you.”

As much as I do not wish to recall those horrible days, allow me a brief personal story that I must tell to make a broader, more important point.  I have a vivid memory of lying in one of those hospital gurneys in one of those little cubicles with the sliding curtain waiting for my surgical biopsy.  I had scrubbed every part of my body with Hepa cleanse wipes while I stood naked and freezing on the linoleum floor.  I had put on the embarrassing little gown they give you and the little socks with grippy things on the bottom. I had answered the hospital’s long string of legal-medical questions (Birth date? Do you know what they are going to do to you today?  Have you ever had an allergic reaction to anesthesia?  Is someone here with you?). And now I was sitting, alone – about as alone as you get in life – just . . . waiting.

Waiting and wondering: When do I get to see my wife? When will they come to get me? What does the future hold? And a thousand other thoughts that pierced unbidden and unwanted into my mind.  Just then, I looked up and saw a nurse with a black smudge on her forehead, and I remembered that this was Ash Wednesday.

It is hard to explain how comforting the sight of that big black smudge was.  You might think it would be far from comforting, since the phrase we hear on Ash Wednesday is “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  But that one symbol of faith, that reminder of something greater and more profound and more all-embracing than all the sterile folderol of the modern practice of medicine (important, but alienating and de-humanizing nonetheless) was enough to lift my spirits like a warm embrace from a loving spouse.


But then, in one of those “thousand-ribbons-round-the-old-oak-tree” moments when God’s grace is poured out like water into an overflowing cup, around the corner came another nurse with ashes on her forehead, then another, and yet another, until nearly every nurse in the pre-surgical unit had ashes on their foreheads.

“Did you get your ashes?” I heard one nurse say to another.  A Catholic priest had come in and was giving ashes to anyone who asked.  Nothing that happened that day, besides my wife’s presence, was quite as powerful or comforting as the sight of those ashes on forehead after forehead.  The nurses didn’t do anything different or say anything different, but they were different. And so was the ward in which I was lying.

Some years later, I was sitting with a friend in a similarly cold, sterile cubicle as he waited uncomfortably for a colonoscopy.  This is not major surgery; there is no hospital stay; and, usually, the results are benign.  “All clear.”  Yay.

But sitting there, waiting, can be trying.  I told him my story about the ashes.  “Oh, wow,” he said, “now that’s a good story.  You should write that in a ‘Catholic Thing’ piece.”  (Did I hear a certain little something in his voice that suggested my other pieces were wanting somehow?  Finally, a good story?)

But then we discussed how it would be if a religious sister in full religious habit had entered the cubicle at that moment to serve as his nurse.  Not as a chaplain full of religious cant, but as an actual nurse.  What if, on the wall behind us, there had been a crucifix and all around us there had been icons of Mary and the saints instead of sterile colors and modernist paintings of nothing, the sort one sees in offices everywhere?  How different would the experience of being in that hospital have been?

Is it time for Catholic hospitals?  I don’t mean hospitals that serve only Catholics, obviously, but hospitals that serve people in a Catholic way.  If people don’t want to see crucifixes and religious sisters and symbols of faith, Lord knows there are plenty of places for them to go.  God bless them.

But in a nation almost maniacally talking about “diversity,” are there places where Catholics and others who share the Christian faith can get the care that will minister to their spirit and their body?  Is it not time for a new flowering of religious orders to train women and men for service, not in college jobs where there is a glut of applicants, but in hospitals where their presence is so desperately needed – where the sterile and de-humanizing tendencies of modernity can sink people, even relatively healthy people, into the darkest depths of loneliness and despair?

For those called to “scrutinize the signs of the times in light of the Gospel,” could the answer be anything but obvious?  It is if you have ever been on one of those gurneys in one of those gowns in one of those sterile white rooms, alone and waiting.


*Image: St. Charles Borromeo Gives Communion to a Plague Victim by Carlo Saraceni, c. 1620 [Basilica di Santa Maria dei Servi, Cesena Italy]

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.