Hospital chaplain navigates COVID-19 from outside patients rooms

NEW LONDON, Conn. - Father Dennis Mercieri skirts COVID-19 these days, at least physically.


The Catholic chaplain at Lawrence + Memorial and Backus hospitals, Mercieri has learned it has to be this way, even when it comes to anointing the sick. Rather than touch holy oil to the forehead and hands of seriously ill COVID-19 patients, he prays for them from outside their rooms, which are almost always in an intensive care unit.


It wasn't always his approach.


Prohibited from donning the protective gear he would need to get close to a COVID-19 patient, Mercieri initially enlisted the help of nurses in administering the sacrament. On a dozen occasions, he did the praying while a nurse applied the oil.


"I wasn't prepared to put on the PPE, and they wouldn't have let me anyway. I'm not that versed in it, and they have to preserve it," Mercieri said. "I'm 69 years old, which means I'm at risk. ... I sought guidance."


Before Diocese of Norwich officials and ultimately Pope Francis weighed in, similar circumstances occasioned controversy in Springfield, Mass., where in late March the bishop granted hospital chaplains permission to stand outside a patient's room, dab a cotton swab with oil and allow a nurse to administer it.


The Diocese of Springfield promptly rescinded the permission.


"It wasn't me that triggered it, it was the situation in Springfield," Mercieri said of the church's response. He discussed the matter with the Norwich Diocese's judicial vicar and chancellor and said "the Vatican made it crystal clear" that patients cannot be anointed "by proxy." Only a priest can administer the sacrament.


Nevertheless, Mercieri was moved by nurses' willingness to help COVID-19 patients.


"So many volunteered before I found out what I was doing was incorrect. It was very touching," he said.


Tabitha Dyer, a nurse in L+M's intensive care unit, helped with the anointing of two COVID-19 patients. These days, she said, nurses have to be prepared to be more than nurses.


"It's been rough, chaotic at times. Patients are by themselves and they're afraid," Dyer said.


Increasingly, hospitals like L+M are providing in-room computer tablets and other devices to help COVID-19 patients communicate with family members.


Dyer, Catholic herself, recalled helping with the anointing of a woman in her 80s, touching a cotton swab to the woman's forehead and palms.


"I was nervous," she said. "I wanted to make sure I was doing it correctly -- for her. It was so sad her family couldn't be there."


Outside the room, Mercieri said prayers loud enough to be heard inside.


After administering 12 anointings of the sick with the help of nurses, Mercieri anointed a 13th COVID-19 patient himself in the emergency room a week ago Monday. He said he wasn't wearing all the protective gear he should have been. Afterward, he showed some mild symptoms of the coronavirus disease, and got tested Friday.


On Sunday, the test came back negative.