As part of Vermont Catholic’s continuing coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Marta Kokoszynska of the pulmonary and critical care department at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington answered the following questions. She is a member of the Catholic Center community at the university and has treated COVID-19 patients.

Q.: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your practice of medicine?

A: I am a pulmonary/critical care physician, so we are in the Intensive Care Units with the sickest patients, both non-COVID and COVID. It has been an incredible and humbling experience. We are learning something new every day and are changing our practices faster than ever before. Our entire environment is very different. The patients are closed off in their own negative pressure rooms. You try not to see the patients as frequently so that you don’t increase your own risk of exposure, your co-workers or the other patients. There are no families to speak with and comfort in person, which is a huge part of our job. You can’t hug anyone, put a loving hand on them or just look them in the eye to let them know their loved one is being taken care of. Even talking to patients through masks, shields and “space-suits” has put a certain barrier in that ultimate human connection that we try to achieve with each patient. We try to stay as connected to the person in front of us as we can. Most of them are on ventilators so that family is given a questionnaire about who they are, what music they like, pets they have, etc. to fill out, and it is posted on the patient’s door so that we get to know the patients a little more. We print out pictures of their families on the doors to keep us constantly reminded that these are human beings who deserve the utmost dignity, patience and mercy and not just room numbers. You learn to miss that simple interaction that you once had with the patients and their families as part of their healing process. However, all of our wonderful medical staff who come in day in day out in this locked unit truly are serving each and every patient with the utmost care. Our amazing nurses and support staff go above and beyond their already busy jobs to make sure each patient knows they are loved and cared for, especially since no family is around.

Q.What special concerns do you have at this time?

A. I think as a healthcare system in Vermont we are doing our best to prepare for the worst.  Perhaps the most difficult thing to cope with is the uncertainty. How bad will it be? How long will it last? Will I get sick? And although these are very valid questions, they are out of our control. It is truly a time when our trust is tested and we use our talents to glorify God.

Q. What specific measures are you taking to stay safe?

A. The most important thing for us is following the appropriate protective wear protocols, not wearing the same clothes as in the hospital home, not going to the grocery store frequently and not meeting up with anyone in person. Making sure to make time for God, your family and yourself, which may not look the same as it did even a month ago is also important. Keeping your immune system as robust as possible with vitamins, healthy meals, exercise and hydration goes a long way.

Q. How do you rely on your faith at this time?

A. My faith is the one essential thing that is keeping me going. It keeps me centered on God and the knowledge that He is the only one fully in control. It is difficult to have regimented prayer during this time, but I am blessed with an amazing group of physicians, part of the Catholic Medical Association – Vermont Mother Cabrini Guild, who get together and pray the rosary every Saturday evening, along with our chaplain Father Jon Schnobrich. I have an incredible spiritual director who keeps me focused and grounded in prayer. And most importantly I try to use my day as a prayer itself. I try to pray over patients before procedures, over empty rooms and the people who will soon fill them and when I am most exhausted, I try to offer it up for any intentions people ask for. So, despite the daily agony we face, it has also become my greatest prayer.

Q. What is your message to the Vermont Catholic community?

A. The most important thing is pray and don’t fear. Take this time to show love to one another, pray with your families, enjoy the small things that we often forget about in our busy lives. Take this time and in silence listen to His voice. Now more than ever we have to trust in God’s Mercy and realize this world is only temporary and out of our control, He is our ultimate salvation. Also be creative with the skills God has blessed you with to bring joy to your homes and serve others in a safe way.

Q. What needs does the medical community have during this pandemic?

A. Honestly, we are focused on our job, trying to be the best for every patient and keeping our communities safe. But I think the thing I have been most humbled by is people’s outreach to say they are praying for us, that they love us and they appreciate us. Our jobs are difficult on an easy day so to have that support always puts a smile on everyone’s face and helps us keep going. And don’t forget not only healthcare workers but the workers at your local grocery store, mechanics and all workers that were considered essential and are going to work every day risking their lives to keep your families fed and comfortable. I have already been blessed to see the community rally around us like never before. Restaurants sending us food, coffee companies sending us coffee saying God Bless You! Those little notes of gratitude keep everyone going and do more than you know to keep our hearts lifted.

Q. How can Catholics help?

A. I think one thing that may help is listening to the advice of physicians to stay in your homes, isolate from people not living in the same residence and stay safe when you have to go out. But as Catholics I think the most important thing that we can do is sincere prayer, loving our families and neighbors and performing acts of kindness especially for those who are alone and in most need (in a safe way). Being united in prayer, whether in your home with your families or over Zoom/Skype with friends or grandparents is the thread that will keep us going and focused on the Lord. In prayer united we will stand inviting all the angels and saints, kept safe in the heart of Jesus wrapped in Mary’s Mantle.