Amid the frenzy of life and death, hospital chaplains bring God’s mercy to the sick, the dying and the front-liners in hospitals. Lifestyle emailed questions to Fr. Marlito G. Ocon, SJ, head chaplain at Philippine General Hospital (PGH).
What is your role as chaplain? And how has that job changed since the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) virus, particularly in a referral hospital like PGH?
Our role as chaplains is technically for the spiritual needs of the patients and staff of the hospital, but in a government hospital like PGH, you cannot but see their needs beyond the spiritual. We cannot just sit down and say, “I am only here for spiritual needs.” Even Jesus, after seeing the people hungry, was moved with pity and found ways to feed them.
With COVID-19, this work has not changed, but has expanded to cater not only to indigent patients, but also to front-liners—nurses, doctors, security guards, maintenance and housekeeping personnel. We provided them with food until the hospital started to feed them three times a day, because many of them couldn’t go home after lockdown was declared. We even provide them with vitamins, thanks to donors who responded quickly when we asked for help.
What is a day like for you—are you on call 24 hours? Do you do rounds in personal protective equipment (PPE)? Do you get days off? And most important: Aren’t you afraid of getting sick?
There are days we are on duty 24 hours. My brother chaplains and I take turns and are on call any time, even at midnight or dawn. With COVID-19, our days have also become preoccupied with responding to inquiries of people who want to make donations. We don’t do rounds in PPE; we use it only when we enter the ICU (intensive care unit) or the room of a PUI (person under investigation), since we are not allowed to enter COVID areas. We each have one day off a week. All of us are afraid to get sick, but we cannot and should not allow our fears to kill our compassion and our sense of mission.
What do the patients ask of you? In your experience, what are their biggest concerns?
The patients normally ask for our prayers and assurance that whatever happens, they can rest in peace. Their biggest concern is, of course, suffering and death; we all want to live and live happily, but death is also real, and we know it will come. Their concern is always whether or not they are prepared, or if the family they are leaving behind is prepared.
What about the front-liners? How are they doing?
The front-liners ask for prayers, that they will be protected all the time, that they remain healthy and strong. But their needs go beyond that; we heard them saying they don’t have masks, N95, alcohol, PPEs, so we started to ask for donations. Certainly the hospital has supplies, but I think they were not enough at the start. Maybe now they have more because of donations.
Do you see people’s faith faltering during these times? How do you reassure them?
No, I have not! Instead I see people’s faith being strengthened. They say “Do or die, and with prayers, nawala takot ko!” When I go around, some nurses raise their hands and shout from a distance because I can’t come closer: “Father, protected tayo ni Lord, di ba?” You know they are tired and afraid, but they serve with a smile and look cool and calm. To assure them, we go around. Sabi nila, “Huwag na kayo umikot, Father,” but how can we do that? That’s part of our work, to let them know that we are with them; we cannot just hide and feel safe in our room, that’s not what we are here for! We have to take risks just as they take risks, because we are together in this fight.
How has being around so much illness and death affected you?
Being around sick and dying people every day is really draining, especially when you feel helpless, when you see their poverty and helplessness; even those patients who can afford it are helpless. It can be so depressing. What helps us cope is when we feel that we have helped them prepare well for any eventualities. When we see them at peace and become more accepting and trusting of the Lord, even if in the end they will go, it helps us believe that we have helped them back to the Lord.
What lessons do you think we should carry forward, as Filipinos and as Catholics?
In everything that happened in human history, there is always a purpose. God has a purpose beyond our understanding, beyond the great minds of our theologians. Sometimes we just have to kneel down and say nothing—simple silence is enough!
One important lesson is that, wherever we want to go, whatever we want to accomplish or achieve, we must always think of both the “Other” and the “other.” Is He with us? Are we all on the same journey together? We are back to the basics, to protect life and to preserve life. Suddenly we appreciate life and health, and realize that even if we had the money to buy more, we can only take what is enough for us! We are forced to think of the “other” who may need a bottle of alcohol, a mask, and enough food for a week. After this pandemic, we hope that we become more conscious that there are truly others out there.