April 24, 2020

Amid crisis, doctor finds hope in ‘the loving ministry of Jesus’

By John Shaughnessy

Dr. Heidi Dunnaway has an interesting perspective on the coronavirus crisis from her view in the southern part of Indiana.

It’s a perspective that comes from being the chief medical officer at Ascension St. Vincent Evansville with oversight responsibilities for the Catholic health care system’s five smaller, rural hospitals in Bedford, Boonville, Brazil, North Vernon and Salem.

“In some ways, we’ve been blessed in the southern part of the state because we’ve not been hit as hard as in the central and northern parts of the state,” she says. “Being in a more rural area is a benefit. We don’t have the population density. We’re a little more spread out. We’ve just had a small number of cases so far. We are sort of holding our breaths.”

She’s also holding onto her faith in this uncertain time when everything “just changes so rapidly.”

“My faith helps me personally quite a bit as we’ve been facing it,” says Dunnaway, a member of St. John the Baptist Parish in Newburgh, Ind., in the Evansville Diocese. “It was very useful to me going through Lent. This feels a bit like going to the desert. I think of Christ’s 40 days in the desert. There’s the simplicity and being laid bare. And Easter this year had a lot of meaning.

“It’s the symbolism of Easter—the new life, the hope that we’ll get through this. There’s a strength we have to have through this. Personally, I’m not sure I’d be able to do this without my faith. It’s so foundational to all the things we’re being asked to do.”

One of the emphases of Ascension’s approach to health care is “our respect for end of life,” she says—“how we take care of our patients, how we take care of our families and be respectful of our patient’s wishes.”

That approach is still in the forefront, but the deadly contagiousness of the coronavirus has added a dramatic challenge as infected patients aren’t allowed visitors, and there can’t always be face-to-face conversations with patients’ families. Technology helps, Dunnaway says, but the challenge continues and takes its toll, including on health care workers.

“I think we all go into medicine—health care—to help people. And it’s very hard when people are put in positions where they feel they can’t do everything they normally do for patients and families. It’s a unique situation we haven’t faced before.

“Those dealing with some of our sickest patients are going to have to find ways to deal with it—not just during the pandemic, but going forward. Everyone is absolutely doing the best they can, but I worry about emotional exhaustion and compassion fatigue.

At the same time, she draws hope, encouragement and strength from two realities she has witnessed during this time. For her, it starts with Ascension’s mission, a mission “rooted in the loving ministry of Jesus as healer.”

“It sets the tone for everything we do for our patients,” Dunnaway says. “From that, everything else naturally flows. Whether we’re in a pandemic situation or not, our framework is already there for these tough issues. It helps us as we go forward.”

The second reality that bolsters her is the response of the health care workers to the crisis.

“One of the things I’ve definitely seen is a real sense of caring and love for each other that has been just much more evident. It’s not just caring for patients. We’re all caring for one another more. People are showing such incredible kindness and compassion for each other—stepping into roles they’re not used to because they see a need for it.

“People show you what they’re made of in these situations. They’ve been tremendous.” †


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