Seminarian Summers

Shoffner approaches healthcare from spiritual perspective

By Mark Shoffner
This summer, as part of the priestly formation plan while I am in seminary, I spent two months at St Dominic’s Hospital in Jackson. For those not aware, St. Dominic’s is our only Catholic hospital in Mississippi and what a fine gem this hospital is, not only for the level of care which they are able to provide, but also for the Catholic model and example which is lovingly provided and shown to those of all walks of life.
I worked as a volunteer chaplain with the full time chaplains employed there and saw many patients throughout my assignment.
One subject my class in seminary studied in the semester prior to our summer assignment was Catholic Healthcare Ethics. It taught us the use of our faith and reason in making healthcare decisions that affect each and every one of us. We learned about the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare Services that is put out by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and how these directives help us to make health decisions using a well-formed and educated moral conscience.
All Catholic healthcare institutions are required to use these directives so that our hospitals and refuges for the sick are truly embodying the care and concern of our loving Savior, as he is the great physician to all. For Catholics, Jesus’ concern for the sick is of prime importance when carrying out the work of caring for others, but too for caring for our own families and loved ones.
With the great advances in medicine today there are many treatments available to deal with some of our most serious health concerns. As a former full-time Registered Nurse I worked in and around serious illnesses and life or death situations with the best attention to care for the patients and families. Quite often we encounter deep-seated questions about what we are to do when our health takes a turn for the worse or when someone we deeply love has a serious illness.
Questions inevitably arise as to whether we should take advantage of everything the doctor can provide or whether we should withhold some or most treatment and focus on providing a comfortable last few days. This summer I was blessed to experience health care from a spiritual viewpoint rather than a strictly medical lens. Being able to approach the patients and families seeking care in the hospital with the sole intent of bringing the consolation of Christ into this moment of their lives was a memorable experience.
When I was working as a nurse, often situations would arise where I, along with others, would wonder why we were doing a procedure when it was not going to prolong a patient’s life or whether it was okay to stop a treatment because of ineffectiveness. Was it pressure from family? Was it because we did not know what the patient’s wishes were? Was it a lack of someone to rely on to answer the deep moral questions challenging us? It was sometimes these and others which puts a burden on the doctors, nurses and families to figure out just what we should do and whether it is okay to proceed with treatment plans.
At St. Dominic’s I was able to participate in something very special in the medical field and a hallmark of Catholic healthcare, ethical consults. An ethical consult is ordered when a serious question arises about the care of a patient. They are sought as an advising body to guide doctors, nurses, and families especially, in the care of the critically ill to make sure that the care given is in conformity with the Catholic Church’s teaching on the dignity of the person and the responsibility owed toward the person by the directives of Christ Jesus.
The pastoral services director, critical care nursing leadership, the ombudsman (hospital appointed patient advocate), and the nurse providing direct care for the patient gather together to discuss and use these directives to make sure that without any reasonable doubt, the care provided by the hospital is moral, respective of the dignity of the person and helpful to the family in making hard end of life decisions. In a non-Catholic health setting, you will not find the church’s teachings easily integrated into the hospital care.
This was a great benefit for me to see my classroom education being lived out and working in the care of the sick and dying. It is such a blessing to have these people help everyone, not just Catholics, use the laws given to us through nature and the law which Jesus has written upon all our hearts, to provide professional care with a concern for our moral life.
(Mark Shoffner, a native of Greenville, is a seminarian for the Diocese of Jackson, in his third year of formation at Notre Dame Seminary.)