A couple of weeks ago I was contacted by Nottingham’s main hospital, the Queens Medical Centre (QMC). They wanted to put me on the rota to provide the sacraments to Catholic coronavirus patients when the full-time chaplain is unavailable. As priests over 70 aren’t allowed into hospital at the moment, they needed more clergy to cover call-outs. (One suddenly becomes painfully aware what a large percentage of our diocesan priests are over 70).
Then one day last week my phone rang, and I was informed that there was indeed a patient in one of the Covid-19 wards who needed the sacrament of anointing, and that I would need to follow the safety precautions laid down by the medical staff. I would like to say I responded eagerly, but to be honest I’m a bit jumpy just going to Sainsbury’s to buy bread and milk at the moment, let alone going into a Covid-19 ward. So it was with a somewhat heavy heart that I picked up my oil and cotton bud (see below), got in my car and set off.
The first sign that something was different was the ease with which I found a parking space at the hospital – routine visitors, of course, are no longer allowed. Then as I approached the ward, the ominous Covid-19 sign was on display, complete with a warning that surgical masks must be worn at all times.
At the entrance I was met by a nurse who explained how to put on my protective gear. I’m not sure what I’d been expecting – I think I’d rather been expecting a Hazmat suit – but what I got was a surgical mask (made out of some cloth/paper material), some rubber gloves and a disposable apron. This seemed to be what the nurses were wearing, so I told myself hopefully that if it was good enough for them, then it was good enough for me. I was taken to the room where the patient was, but at that moment the nurses were seeing to his “personal needs”. I was asked if I’d wait for 10 minutes until they finished: a chair was provided for me in the corridor.
It was time to get my cotton buds ready: the necessary equipment for anointing safely. Normally, the priest dips his finger into the sacred oil, anoints the patient, then dips his finger in the oil again – but under present circumstances this risks contaminating the oil. So I followed the regulations, dipping each end into the oil, one end to anoint the patient’s head, and the other end to anoint the hands. After the anointing, the cotton bud is put into the medical waste bin to be burned.
Likewise, we are not allowed to take our ritual book into the room, but must print off the prayers we need on a sheet of paper which must also be disposed in the medical waste bin.
As I was waiting I became aware of the health staff around me on the ward: doctors, nurses, the young woman taking the tea trolley around, all with their surgical masks. You may have seen the videos of nurses overwhelmed and in tears on social media (some, though not all, of which have turned out to be fraudulent), but this very much wasn’t the case on this ward at the QMC. Indeed, far from being overwhelmed, they exuded cheerfulness and kindness, even several of them checking I was OK (clearly I wasn’t doing a great job of pulling off the “I’ve done this loads of times” look).
Like everyone else in the country, I had already been feeling grateful for the work of NHS staff – but never so much as that morning. Not only were they turning up to work for long hours in conditions that made me nervous for half an hour, but they were doing so with humour. I reflected how many of those who come to Mass week after week work in our NHS, Catholics from all over the world living and worshipping in my parish (and countless other city parishes) and working to care for the sickest in our society. We owe them a great debt.
After celebrating the sacrament of anointing (very likely, in this case, the Last Rites in both senses), I took off my protective gear, threw it into the medical waste bin, very thoroughly washed my hands, and left the ward with relief. I passed nurses and doctors who were just starting their hours-long shift: they would do the same all over again tomorrow and the next day, and for as long as they were needed.
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