It has put my faith to fiery tests. Especially the fear of death. It becomes a very real possibility when you see so much death around you.
Gabriela Bambrick-Santoyo is an Internal Medicine physician. She was born and raised in Mexico City and has been an active and committed member of the Focolare community since 1987. She currently works as an Associate Program Director of the Internal Medicine department in a hospital in northern New Jersey, currently a hotspot in the current COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Camosy: I first met you as the co-leader of a local Focolare meeting here in New Jersey. Can you say something about how your Catholic faith and Focolare spirituality informs your calling to a be a physician?
Bambrick-Santoyo: First of all, thank you for this invitation, it is an honor. My calling as a Catholic and part of the Focolare movement and my vocation as a physician are inseparable. I was born Catholic and I found the Focolare movement when I was about eighteen. This encounter changed my life because it was the first time, I was pushed to concretely live the gospel of “love your neighbor as yourself.” This profoundly changed me and has been what has guided my actions, both as a person and as a physician.
So, besides living and trying to live every moment, loving every person that I encounter, there is a second component to being Catholic that is particularly important in the medical world and that is to be informed of the ethics that rule medicine and how do they conform to our catholic faith and moral ethics. My relationship with moral theologians and bioethicists has been key in forming my conscience; first because they provide me with knowledge pearls that would take me years to distil and second because they guide me as to what I need to read in those areas.
In my opinion, we cannot be fully informed Catholics unless we search to be in relationships with people who have different expertise within our community. You have been one of those people, Charlie. I think this relationship among Catholics with different strengths is so essential. Your expertise is essential to my faith and my expertise is essential to yours. Only then can we live a unified faith, with a well-informed conscience.
You had a transition from Mexican to U.S. medicine that has not been without its twists and turns. What kind of medicine are you currently practicing here in the U.S.?
I was born and raised in Mexico and I also studied medicine in Mexico. Yes, it was a very hard and convoluted road to get to where I am and it definitely required the grace of God and the love and support from my family and friends. I completed my Internal Medicine residency at Mount Sinai, and I am currently practicing Internal Medicine in a community hospital in New Jersey; this will soon change and I will start working at a large academic center in New York City. But in both instances, I practice inpatient hospital medicine and supervise residents.
What has it been like to be on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in a hotspot in New Jersey?
It has put my faith to fiery tests. Especially the fear of death. It becomes a very real possibility when you see so much death around you. Will my life be taken too? Am I willing to lay my life down for those around me? If I’m honest, I cannot say it was an immediate and full “yes” - it took a few tries to finally say it with conviction. Once you say yes to the calling that we all have as Christians to lay our lives down for others the graces come pouring in and out of you! They really do!
I also had to ask myself what it meant to “love others as yourself” in this COVID pandemic. When I first started seeing patients, I was full of fear. I wanted to go in quickly, do my medical thing, make sure the patient got what they needed and leave the room as quickly as possible. Then a twist: my daughter, a healthy 18-year-old, was hospitalized with COVID.
During the evenings, she would call me crying from her hospital room saying “Mom, I have lost all my dignity. I need to go to the bathroom, and they won’t let me out. They don’t want to come in and keep pushing me back into my room and at some point I thought I was going to have to go to the bathroom on the floor.” That just crushed me, Charlie, and it made me wonder if I was doing something similar to my patients. If wasn’t laying down my life completely. I wasn’t loving completely and with mercy. At that point I resolved to change to fully give my life to my patients, to pour out more mercy and never let them feel abandoned.
It must be so hard to deal with death on the level you’ve had to see it during the last few weeks. It is so difficult for the rest of us to even imagine it.
That’s true, but at times there are graces too. One of my patients was a very sick 91-year-old that essentially knew she was going to die from COVID-19 and was at peace about it. She didn’t want any extraordinary measures. My act of mercy consisted in being there in the last moments of her life. In spending time not only with my patient but also with her family over the phone. I kept asking what message they wanted to send her and then relaying the message. She was hard of hearing, so I had to get really close to her ear - which again it is scary when you are really physically close with these patients - while I also held her hand.
I will never forget when I told her that her family loved her very much and that they were at peace and they know you are ready and she just squeezed my hand. That is mercy. I knew I was not going to be able to save her, but I was able to be there, being the channel of love from her family to her and of course of God to her.
Other times it has been even more difficult to find the loving thing to do. I had another patient with whom I had what I call “the double whammy” situation. Besides being a COVID patient, he was very aggressive, not completely stable and stated he would punch me if I did not do X or Y. Not only my life was at stake from COVID but also from a possible aggression. It took two or three moments to remind myself that this person is also a child of God and that I needed to look on him with patience, love and mercy. Once he saw this in my eyes his anger began to evaporate. On his way to being admitted to a different ward, he turned to me, smiled and said, “You and [nurse X] have been the only ones that have taken the time to explain things to me.” I got the very strong sense that she and I were some of the few people in his life to treat him as a human being.
In a recent text you described the situation in which you were working as a “war zone.” Can you say more about what has made it like that?
I have to clarify that I have never been through war so I can only speak from what I have heard from people (like my mother and grandmother) who have lived in a war zone. But the bottom line is this: You have a very clear enemy, in this case it is a virus you don’t know at all. You don’t know how to be prepared and how to best counter it. All you see is death and deep suffering around you. People who I didn’t expect to die are dying.
People are doing okay by every standard of pre-COVID medical knowledge - but then the next day you find out that they died overnight. There is not enough room to keep up with the deaths! Not enough room in your heart, not enough room in your mind and physically. And not enough room in the hospitals. We have had to make additional space in new refrigerated rooms. Funeral homes are overwhelmed, crematories are overwhelmed, cemeteries are overwhelmed. Besides that particular emotional strain, you have to deal with your own strain (worry about your health, your family’s health) and that of your colleagues who sometimes breakdown in front of you. I now feel like I know what it is like to be in a warzone.
What difference does your robust prayer life and theological commitments make for how you practice medicine under these circumstances?
Prayer is the bread of the soul said both Gandhi and Mother Theresa. Without it our souls die. Never have I understood this better than now, Charlie. Prayer has been a central pillar of my life and has allow me to get through this crisis. It is in prayer that I find peace and solace. It is in prayer that I find myself in God.
For morning prayer, I have adopted the pope’s prayer for the intercession of Mary in this crisis and I also read the daily readings. This is what sets my day and brings me the peace that I then need to treat others with dignity, love and mercy.
My family holds Holy Hour weekly and we also share prayer, meditation, and mass. All are different forms of prayer and every single one is an essential component of my life. Together we also regularly share what is hard, what our experiences are and what are our needs. This truly makes us a small domestic church.
Lastly, I participate in weekly meetings (zoom meetings) with my Focolare community. All those things together are the armor I count on to live through this crisis.
What difference can Crux readers make given what you and others in your situation are currently facing? In particular, who most needs our prayers?
I think there are two things. Never before have I felt the effect of other people’s prayers on my work, so I encourage people to continue to pray for all front liners very intently. It does make a difference.
But the other part we can do as citizens is to believe this is a real crisis. Although life outside the trenches looks normal and people want to “open up the country”, there is a heart wrenching match against death we are fighting in the trenches and we need your help. Without you doing your part (prayer, put on your mask, stay home, believe that this is a crisis) we will soon have no healthcare workers because we will all be exhausted, broken down, or sick. All of us need to be in this fight.
Charles C. Camosy