May 8, 2020

‘You just try to ease their fears’

Faith guides woman as she cares for people whose lives are threatened by two pandemics

A Cathedral High School graduate and a longtime member of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, Anne Maguire volunteers about 25 hours a week as a nurse practitioner on a COVID unit in a New York City hospital while also working a full-time job caring for HIV-positive patients there. (Submitted photo)

A Cathedral High School graduate and a longtime member of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis, Anne Maguire volunteers about 25 hours a week as a nurse practitioner on a COVID unit in a New York City hospital while also working a full-time job caring for HIV-positive patients there. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

It was a touch of humanity amid the heartbreak.

When Anne Maguire noticed the elderly man struggling with his oxygen mask, the former Indianapolis resident was in her first few days of volunteering on a hospital’s COVID-19 unit in New York City, where more than 13,000 people—and counting—have died of the disease.

Seeing that all the staff nurses were busy—caring for several patients at a time in a stressful, high-risk setting—Maguire approached the elderly man.

“The patients are all alone on the COVID unit, as no visitors are allowed,” she says. “He was restless and pulling at the mask. I saw he needed some extra comfort.”

So the 31-year-old nurse practitioner removed his mask for a moment, gently wiped his face with a warm cloth, soaked a sponge with water and placed it against his lips so he could draw the moisture into his parched mouth. His expression of appreciation showed her just how much her touches of caring meant.

“It really reminded me of the reason I was there,” says Maguire, who volunteers at Mount Sinai West hospital in Manhattan for about 25 hours a week, in addition to her regular 40-hour workweek of caring for people who are HIV-positive.

“This is someone alone and dying and suffering. And that is the tragedy of this crisis. Like all the other nurses, you’re trying to let them know that someone is there who cares.”

Maguire was at the man’s bedside a few nights later when he died, giving him morphine to calm him and adding her prayers to those of the patient care technician who was also caring for him.

“He had such a peaceful death,” says the longtime former member of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. “It was sad, but it was also so wonderful.”

Those same words—sad and wonderful—also fit the story of Maguire’s experiences in the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis in the United States.

It’s also the story of why the 2007 graduate of Cathedral High School in Indianapolis and the 2011 graduate of Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Ind., has chosen to help care for people whose lives are, and have been, threatened by two of the worst pandemics in modern history—the coronavirus and HIV/AIDS pandemics.

Living her Catholic values

Maguire starts with the short answer as to why she volunteers in the COVID unit three nights a week while she also works five days a week helping and caring for people who are HIV-positive.

“My Catholic faith has instilled in me the value of service,” she says. “I knew the nurses and patients were struggling, and I wanted to be there to help support them.” 

The longer answer takes her back to 2013-14 when she spent 10 months in the African country of Uganda, volunteering there as a nurse in a program run by the Sisters of Holy Cross.

“I did a lot of work in their HIV clinic,” Maguire recalls about her time in that country that has been hit hard by the AIDS pandemic through the years. “That’s where my passion started for working with HIV patients.”

After she became a nurse practitioner, that passion eventually led her to relocate last year to New York City—a city that has a significant number of people who are HIV-positive, a city whose department of health is considered a leader in HIV care.

“It’s been great to be in a place that has the highest standard of HIV care,” she says.

Working with HIV-positive patients in a clinic connected to Mount Sinai West, Maguire has found her 16 months there to be rewarding and challenging.

Another challenge has been added since the coronavirus began to overwhelm New York. During the lockdown there, she has been working to stay in touch with patients through video or phone visits.

“It’s been difficult as many of our patients are older and/or of lower socioeconomic status. They may not own a phone or be able to use it.

“Our patients living with HIV have been very scared during this time as they have already lived through one deadly pandemic, and are immune-suppressed. Many of our patients have lost friends and family members to COVID-19.”

Maguire says the clinic’s mental health team has stepped up even more to provide “tremendous support” for patients during this time. She also felt the need to do more during the coronavirus crisis. So she signed up to volunteer on the hospital’s COVID unit, which led to a haunting and humbling first shift.

‘You just try to ease their fears’

“I was assigned to a unit where their nurse manager had just died the night before to COVID-19,” she recalls. “The staff, which remarkably still showed up to work in those circumstances, held a moment of silence in honor of him.

“A staff member pulled me aside and told me about how their manager had showed kindness and compassion to her. This was a humbling night for me.”

That first night, she distributed personal protective equipment to the staff. Now, she has an up-close view of the crisis on a COVID unit. She has witnessed the “remarkable” resilience, dedication and teamwork of her fellow health care workers. She has also seen their fatigue. Mostly, she has noticed the fear the patients have.

“The patients are very sick and have shared how horrible the virus has left them feeling,” she says. “The patients frequently express fear that they will die, as many of their family members have died from COVID. Many of the patients are now on end-of-life or hospice care, and their family members are unable to visit them.

“A patient the other night had survived lung cancer, a limb amputation and sepsis. He shared with me, ‘Now I have this virus. I’ve never felt so miserable.’

“An elderly Hispanic woman was admitted. When I was finally able to get a staff member to translate for me, she was saying, ‘I’m dying.’

“Fear is what you see across the board. They’re scared. You just try to ease their fears and provide some empathy and compassion.”

She strives to be that source of care and comfort on days that start with an 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. work shift, followed by a volunteer stint that extends from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.

“Once I get there, it’s great,” she says about arriving on the COVID unit. “When I get home, it’s hard to wind down. It’s hard to get to sleep.”

In such moments, her thoughts often turn to her large extended family in Indianapolis.

“It’s been very difficult being away from my family during this time,” says the daughter of Joe and Rita Maguire of Indianapolis, who are also members of St. John the Evangelist Parish. “I live alone, so the isolation has been difficult.

“I’m exhausted mentally and physically. I’m not scared of having COVID, as likely I’ve already been exposed. My biggest concern is that my family stays safe. What I think about most often is how long it will be until I can come home to Indianapolis to see my friends and family.”

Right now, she doesn’t anticipate that return until late summer at the earliest. In the meantime, she draws strength from the love she receives from her family and friends in Indianapolis and the support of the family she is building in New York.

‘There are moments of hope’

“My co-workers have been extremely supportive, which has been such a blessing,” she says. “My HIV patients have sent so many messages with kind words. And every visit I have with a patient, they have asked how I am doing, and thank me for working.”

She has also received extra doses of hope and faith at just the right times.

“There are moments of hope when you see patients go home from the hospital,” she says. “A doctor came to the unit to thank the nurses for caring for him. He had been hospitalized at the beginning of the crisis, and was back to work.”

There was also the uplifting interaction she had with one of her HIV-positive patients who had been infected with the coronavirus.

“He lived alone and was understandably very scared. I guided him through the illness with daily video or telephone visits. He is well now, and I saw him in clinic last week. He was so grateful to be alive, and appreciative of his care.”

Another special moment came on Easter Sunday morning when she felt especially connected to her parents. As Father Rick Nagel celebrated a livestream Mass from St. John the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis, she watched from New York, knowing that her parents were watching from their home in Indianapolis.

“That was very comforting, especially as I had just finished a night shift at the hospital.”

She says she has drawn closer to God during this crisis. She has also relied upon her faith. 

“My faith has allowed me to see the goodness and beauty of humanity in the midst of such a highly politicized crisis,” she says. “In every moment from the beginning, I’ve seen the kindness of people toward me—and the patients have been so thankful for our care.

“Every interaction I’ve had with people has been good. It’s just been wonderful.” †

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