Dr. Natalie King addresses the Converging Roads conference on caring for the sick and dying.

Fundamental health care: Be as Christ to the sick

By Valerie Schmalz

What does it mean to be a Catholic doctor, nurse, or other health-care practitioner in today’s world?

That was the question on the table for about 100 people who gathered at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University on March 9 for the Converging Roads “Fundamental Health Care Ethics” all day seminar by the St. John Paul II Foundation.

“To recognize the very face of the Lord in the face of patient to whom you give care, no matter how difficult some may be,” is the essence of the vocation of the Catholic health care worker, said Arland Nichols, president of the St. John Paul II Foundation, in his talk opening the conference.

Arland Nichols, St. John Paul II Foundation

“We firmly believe that ‘progressive darkening’ within society can be overcome by men and women such as yourselves, who strive to serve all human life from conception to natural death,” Nichols noted.

One of the greatest challenges in medicine today is how to care for patients at the end of life, as physician assisted suicide—legal in California and in nine other states—gains acceptance in the public mind and culture. Euthanasia is not legal in the U.S. but has been legalized in the Netherlands and Canada.

“Christ gives us the example of suffering, but also of hope,” said Dr. Natalie King, an expert in palliative care, care for those for whom there is little hope of cure or recovery. Being with the sick, caring for them and treating each person as an individual child of God is the task, King said. Palliative care draws on a multidisciplinary team of medical workers, chaplains, social workers, and families.

“We must hold an ethics of care,” King said.

She focused her talk on a Vatican letter from the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith, “Samaritanus bonus: on the care of persons in the critical and terminal phases of life.”

The letter drew little notice when it was published in September of 2020, at the height of the Covid era, but it draws a beautiful picture: “The mission of faithful care of human life until its natural conclusion is entrusted to every health care worker.”

As well, the letter from the Church’s doctrinal authority, issued with the concurrence of Pope Francie, notes: “Euthanasia and assisted suicide are always the wrong choice.”

Medical workers cannot participate under any circumstances, the document states. This is an increasing issue of conscience as physician assisted suicide is requested by patients and families, King said. King said she talks with the patient to find how they feel, to give them hope but if in the end the person chooses death the health care worker must withdraw.

Director of Pastoral Ministry Deacon Fred Totah at the conference.

The Dicastery letter outlines the role of medical personnel faced with this sad situation: “the medical personnel and the other health care workers – faithful to the task ‘always to be at the service of life and to assist it up until the very end’ – cannot give themselves to any euthanistic practice, neither at the request of the interested party, and much less that of the family. In fact, since there is no right to dispose of one’s life arbitrarily, no health care worker can be compelled to execute a non-existent right.”

Throughout the day, a series of speakers, experts from around the country, continued to address hot button issues in health care including gender and sexuality, mental health, and issues surrounding the prevalence of prenatal diagnosis.   

At the center of all the discussions was the patient.

The role of the Catholic health care worker is “to meet them where they are, not condone where they are,” said Dr. Cynthia Hunt, a psychiatrist who spent most of her career in the secular medicine. She is now director of counseling at the seminary.

“It is truly seeing the person in front of me, the patient, and truly listening to them,” said Dr. Lelanya Kearns who spoke as part of the panel on “The Unique Mission of Catholic Health Care,” with Hunt and Bella Primary Care founder Dolores Meehan.

Dolores Meehan NP and Director of Bella Primary Care, Lelanya Kearns, and Dr. Cynthia Hunt

Many of the speakers noted they pray for their patients and pray, themselves, as they bring their faith, mostly unspoken, into their interactions with each patient.

The day began with Mass offered by San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone who thanked those attending the conference for their commitment to ethical health care. In his homily, he said their faithful witness “also means being in the presence of God which means a life of prayer.”

“How important this is for medical professionals in the life and death decisions you have to make all the time,” said Archbishop Cordileone. “Thank you for your faithful witness. May God grant you grace.”

The Archdiocese of San Francisco, St. Patrick’s Seminary and the Catholic Medical Association co-sponsored the event.