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Catholic Life COVID-19 Features Health

Priests take on specialized role as Covid chaplains

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Father Peter Santandreu suits up with personal protective equipment before entering the Covid Ward of St. Joseph Post-Acute Center in Orchard Park. Father Santandreu is one of several priests who have taken on the role of chaplain for patients of Covid-19. Courtesy of Father Peter Santandreu

When the Covid pandemic hit last March, hospitals were among the few things that didn’t shut down. Nearly 1,900 people were hospitalized in Western New York at its peak. Now, nearly a year later, hospitals are still laboring to care for those who are ailing. To meet the spiritual needs of patients, Catholic Health has instituted specialized Covid chaplains to care for those hospitalized. These chaplains may be the only non-clinical people seen by the patients due to their being held in isolation.

When Catholic Health designated the St. Joseph Campus of Sisters Hospital as Buffalo’s first Covid hospital in March of last year, Catholic Health CEO Mark Sullivan contacted to Father John Gaglione, then director of Pastoral Care for St. Joseph Campus, to design a pastoral care program. Father Gaglione then reached out to our priests and deacons for volunteers who would carry out the duties of a regular hospital chaplain visiting the patients, bringing Communion, anointing the sick, and when necessary, offering grief counseling to the families.

“One of our biggest tasks of course was working with the staff at the hospital due to the tremendous stress that they were under. That was one of our primary responsibilities,” Father Gaglione said. “It was a unique situation because they were under such stress between the long hours and the number of deaths. That certainly added to what they were dealing with.”

When the invitation came to become a Covid-19 specialized counselor at Sisters of Charity Hospital, Father Peter Santandreu jumped at the opportunity to help. In that role, he worked with the staff to help them process what they were experiencing with one of the worst pandemics in history. “I wanted in on the action. At the end of the day, I wanted to be a part of something that was helping people rather than sitting it out,” he said.

Over the summer, he served as interim chaplain at Kenmore Mercy Hospital. Since November, Father Santandreu has worked with Covid patients at St. Joseph Post-Acute Center in Orchard Park, a Catholic Health facility, doing what chaplains do.

“That’s just going in and visiting with the Catholic patients, doing anointings, and giving out Communion, and just being with the people there who are separated from their families and trying to recover,” he said, adding that he often jokes with them in an effort to lighten their mood.

The role of Covid chaplain differs from a standard chaplain slightly. They have to gown and glove before entering the room of a patient infected by the Coronavirus. Anointing is done with a cotton swab, rather than a finger. Anything that is brought into a patient’s room must remain there.

Father Santandreu was on duty over the holidays, where he saw the loneliness and isolation that the Covid patients experience.

“They’re older people, so they’re missing their grandkids and their great-grandkids,” he said. “For me though, it was an honor to be able to be close to them and be there, not like a surrogate grandson, but in some ways to be a non-clinical worker to be with them and have a conversation about life, about whatever they are going through, and learn about their lives a little bit. I would say boredom is the biggest thing and the isolation. They just want to be around their families, like we all do. All these social safety nets that they set up through having families and friendships are taken away from them. And even more is taken away when you’re in the confinement of the Covid ward.”

Father Paul Seil, pastor of St. Bernadette Parish in Orchard Park, who has experience as a Buffalo Fire Department chaplain, goes into St. Joseph Sub-Acute Center once a week to anoint every Catholic there who wants to be anointed. In the last several weeks, he’s been averaging about 17 people. “There’s a quicker turnover now then there was a few months ago,” he said. “Back in June and July we were up to about 80 or more people who were in the past-acute care center. The people I see are off the ventilators. They’re not in intensive care. However, some of them are quite sick and sadly, some of them don’t survive.”

The staff maneuver through three zones of increasing safety. The green zone allows people to move freely, the transitional orange zone, and the dangerous red zone.

“To go into the red zone you need the full personal protective equipment. So, I suit up in the gowns the N95 masks, the surgical cover masks, the face shield, the gloves,” Father Seil explained. “It’s rewarding in one sense, but it is also something that as a priest, I feel I should be doing because, who needs this more? They’re families can’t come and visit them, unless they are in very critical condition. Usually, families will come to the window or on the phone or iPad.”

Father Santandreu, who serves as parochial vicar of St. Amelia Parish in Tonawanda commends the work of the frontline workers who take care of the Covid patients day in and day out.

“The health care people in the units are tremendously committed to these people and really bring them a lot of comfort, not just medically or physically, but also emotionally and spiritually,” he said.

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