Hospitals sometimes call my Franciscan community to find a priest, especially at night and on weekends. One night I answered a hospital call around 9:30. A woman who suffered a cerebral hemorrhage three days ago was on life support. She asked if a priest could come over right away. The family is Catholic. The patient’s husband believes that God will work a miracle and that his wife will survive. I recognized that this was not a call to anoint the dying. It was a call for moral consultation.
I arrived at the Neuroscience ICU and found the staff member who called. He took me to a distraught husband standing at his wife’s bedside. The man told me he would not allow the medical staff to withdraw life support. His wife suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Yet, he hoped for a miracle. He wanted to respect life and do what was right.
A nurse led the two of us to a consultation room. I listened as he told me about the bond of love between him and his wife. He was an engineer and she was a bookkeeper. They were married 35 years and were looking forward to retirement. Then his wife collapsed in the living room.
He told me about their children. Two daughters lived in the area and visited their mother every day. A son lived in California and would arrive tomorrow. Then, he broke down and cried. He wanted to do what was right. He understood what the doctors explained to him about the futility of further treatment. Instruments showed no brain activity for three days. We discussed moral options and Church teaching.
We prayed together. When he realized how late it was, he asked me to return the next evening. His two daughters wanted him to allow the medical staff to withdraw life support. He told me that once his son arrived, he might be able to let his wife go home to God. He wanted his son to see his mother’s condition—a good reason to continue life support until he arrived.
I returned the next evening. His son had arrived and, some time later, he consented to the removal of the ventilator. His wife had died just before I arrived. The man said resignedly: “There was no miracle, but at least she is no longer suffering.” His faith seemed so strong. He and his children joined me in prayers at the bedside. He believed he had done the right thing. I felt the presence of God as we all shed tears of grief. I think there was a miracle, just not the one he prayed for.
Faith tells us that God created us and that we ultimately return to God. Yet, facing the death of a loved one, or facing our own inevitable death, is difficult. Doctors and medical teams work as if everything depends upon them; yet they know that patients die, despite the best of care.
In his “Canticle of the Creatures” St. Francis reminds us that Sister Death, whom no man can escape, comes to all of us as God’s creatures. In his “Letter to the Order” Francis prayed for his brothers saying, “By your grace alone, may we make our way to You, Most High.”
May the Lord give our readers peace!
Tau Cross and Dove: P. Phillipus