Angels at the bedside: COVID-19 medical teams follow in the footsteps of Catholic sisters

by Jerry Circelli

North Texas Catholic

June 30, 2020

nurse with child
George Grace Clover, a graduate of St. Joseph School of Nursing, applies a Kenny hot pack treatment to a 4-year-old polio patient. (Fort Worth Star-Telegram Collection, UTA Libraries)

The reputation of 11 Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word preceded them long before they stepped off a steam train in Fort Worth on April 5, 1885. Traveling from France, to Galveston, to San Antonio, and then on to Cowtown, the religious order of sisters was building along the way some of the finest hospitals in the world.

Fearless in the face of danger during outbreaks of cholera, yellow fever, and other infectious diseases, the sisters served at the bedside of Texans to help them battle serious illnesses — sometimes at their own peril.

Upon their arrival at the southeast corner of what are now South Main and West Morphy streets, in Fort Worth, the sisters saw an aging, wooden railroad infirmary standing alone atop a small rise two miles south of the city. It would be a challenge, but this is where their work would begin on the development of St. Joseph Hospital, the first in Fort Worth.

 
ANGELS ON HIGH
 
Blue Angels with health care workers
Hospital staff look on as the U.S. Navy Blue Angels fly over North Texas hospitals May 6, 2020. (Getty/Tom Pennington)

Fast forward 135 years. The day is May 6, 2020, and by 11:30 a.m., hundreds of health care workers are gathered on the six-acre greenspace and atop adjacent parking garages in the heart of the Fort Worth medical district. It is the area where the sisters lived and worked, and precisely where St. Joseph Hospital — once one of the largest and most modern in Texas — formerly stood. People are here this day to witness the U.S. Navy Blue Angels flyover saluting frontline medical responders.

“There they are!” a woman in hospital scrubs shouts, pointing north toward downtown Fort Worth. Approaching in perfect formation are six blue and gold F/A-18 Hornets, prized Navy jets capable of nearly Mach-2 speed. Within seconds, the jets make a wide pass to the south and west of the area before circling back toward downtown. Then, to the surprise of spectators, the jets bank hard toward where they are standing and make a thunderous sweep directly overhead. White smoke billows in their wake. The moment the Blue Angels pass over the St. Joseph Hospital site, the sun lights up their underbellies, only for a few seconds, with a reflective burst that silences the crowd. The flyover and dramatic reflection occurred at the right place, at the right time, for all the right reasons.

This was a fitting tribute not only to today’s health care workers, but also to all those who came before them. The pilots’ flight path that took them directly over the site where 11 Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word arrived in 1885 could rightly be described as divinely inspired. It is also quite logical. The sisters built Fort Worth’s first hospital here and the sprawling medical district that exists today developed all around it over the decades. So, it was the logical, strategic epicenter for a flyover saluting area health care workers fighting a pandemic.

We can only imagine how the Blue Angels must have looked flying over Fort Worth’s hospital district from the perspective of real angels in heaven — and saints such as the 11 sisters who started it all in 1885.

 
CARRYING ON CHRIST'S COMPASSION FOR THE SICK


The legacy of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word exists in quality patient care and best practices in medicine that they established through two centuries. Although hospital ownership and administration in North Texas has now been mostly secularized, the influence of the Catholic Church and impact of the sisters is far reaching. The religious order women were on fire for Christ’s teachings to care for people in need and have passed the torch to many in the medical community today.

A figurative example of that torch can be found in the office of John Burk, M.D., of Fort Worth. It is in the form of a crucifix that has a special place on the desk and in the life of the doctor.   

Dr. John Burk
Dr. John Burk, a pulmonary specialist, is photographed in his office after returning from treating COVID-19 patients at a Fort Worth hospital. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

A pulmonary and critical care specialist, Dr. Burk is busy these days serving COVID-19 patients in intensive care units at area hospitals, including Baylor Scott & White All Saints Medical Center, Texas Health Harris Methodist, and others.

A physician for 50 years, Dr. Burk served nearly two decades at St. Joseph Hospital in Fort Worth. When the hospital closed its doors in the early 1990s, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, in a gesture of thanks, presented a crucifix to the doctor they so admired.

“It had been in the surgical waiting room where people awaited reports on their family members who were having surgery,” Dr. Burk said. “It had been there since about the 1930s, and ever since the sisters gave it to me, it has remained on my desk. The sisters were generous to share it with me.

“I wish it could tell stories, like, ‘Here’s what I’ve observed over the years’ and ‘Here’s what I’ve seen,’” Dr. Burk said. The physician, however, has a good idea about what went on at St. Joseph Hospital and said it was nothing short of excellence in health care, thanks to the high standards of the religious order of women who built it, served as nurses, and ran it.

“And it was a very, very, very caring environment,” Dr. Burk stressed. “The nuns just shared their commitment to caring for folks with staff, and that was the environment you lived in and worked in.”

The sisters hired the best people for the job at St. Joseph Hospital. Some, like Dr. Burk, were Christians but not Catholics. An Episcopalian, Dr. Burk said the hospital kept him connected with the Catholic Church and the sisters he respected.

“You didn’t see people on staff there, however, who were not of faith,” Dr. Burk said. “That was just part of what it was like to work there. It was a very safe, secure environment for caring for people and addressing their spiritual needs.”

Keeping the faith is important in persevering through the current COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Burk said, explaining that he and others in the medical field are working 12-hour shifts for several days in a row. The pulmonary and critical care doctor explained that in addition to people experiencing the aches, pains, and fevers that can accompany COVID-19, some develop serious complications in their lungs, causing oxygen levels to fall and requiring oxygen support.

In overseeing COVID-19 patient treatment, the doctor emphasized the need for a dedicated team. He credits those teams for the progress being made. “That includes nurses, respiratory therapists, housekeeping, and I mean everybody is involved and is incredibly supportive of each other in taking care of patients. It’s quite an organized effort.”

No stranger to infectious disease control, Dr. Burk served in Bihar, India, in 1974, to care for patients during one of the worst smallpox epidemics of the 20th century. He has also worked in the field of epidemiology with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and participated in smallpox eradication programs with the World Health Organization.

“Right now, we are living through medical and social history,” Dr. Burk said. “We’ve been confronted with epidemics before, and COVID has its own story.”

Through it all, Dr. Burk said, “I feel blessed to be given the opportunity to serve in a very special way. I hope I can bring to the bedside what peace that can come from being present when others can’t, when families can’t. 

“That has been a very painful part of the current hospital experience,” Dr. Burk said, explaining that because of the highly infectious nature of COVID-19, families are often separated from their loved ones in the hospital.

“We have to remember that we are all part of the whole and we are here to serve each other,” Dr. Burk said.

 

Dr. Robert McBroom
Dr. Robert McBroom, an infectious disease specialist, has been involved in mobilizing military units and testing centers to combat COVID-19. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)
TAKING THE FIGHT TO THE CORONAVIRUS


Robert McBroom, M.D., of Wichita Falls, is an infectious disease specialist and member of the Texas State Guard who is literally mobilizing military units to combat COVID-19.

In his role with the Texas State Guard, Dr. McBroom has been involved in setting up testing centers as well as overflow hospital camps and shelters, if needed. In addition to establishing protocols for health care at the units, the physician has had to establish procedures to ensure brigades are fit for service with no pre-existing respiratory illnesses or other issues that would put them at a higher health risk.

In the civilian sector, Dr. McBroom is involved in the care of COVID-19 patients and others at United Regional Health Care System and a private surgical hospital, both in Wichita Falls.

Like others in the medical community serving during the pandemic, Dr. McBroom has been working 12- to 16-hour days. Most of that work, he said, came in the mid-March to mid-April timeframe when the medical community was assessing patient needs and care procedures, and trying to make them conform with medical community recommendations and ever-changing government regulations.

A physician for 35 years, Dr. McBroom has worked through other epidemics and pandemics, including HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and now COVID-19.

While physicians may see COVID-19 patients once per day, Dr. McBroom said nurses, respiratory therapists, and other hospital staffers are providing constant care. “They are the real boots on the ground in this fight.”

A member of Sacred Heart Parish in Wichita Falls, Dr. McBroom said his faith has kept him strong at his job dealing with infectious diseases.

“I was never afraid of any of that and I was never frightened of influenza or the novel strains that could become pandemic,” Dr. McBroom said.

“We can’t protect ourselves from everything, except by faith. Faith gives us strength to persevere,” he said.

Dr. McBroom recommended, “Put your faith in God to work and trust Him to protect you. Or if the axe falls, trust Him to see you through it.

“Having faith is the best medicine — more than anything man can do,” he said. “Put a little more trust in God.”

 

WARRIORS IN THE FIGHT AGAINST COVID-19


In North Fort Worth, Alex Guevara, D.O., enlists the help of an army of 25 staffers at his family practice to wage war on COVID-19 while also taking care of other patients requiring medical attention.

Dr Guevara staffDr Guevara staff
Dr. Alex Guevara and staff at their clinic. (courtesy photo)


The physician said that members of his team, like many others, are truly on the front line of the COVID-19 fight.

“We’re seeing patients and trying to keep them out of the hospital,” Dr. Guevara said, emphasizing the importance of testing for those showing symptoms of the infectious disease. He said his practice is conducting between two and 10 tests per day, in addition to antibody testing.

He estimated that about 99 percent of his patients can recover at home successfully, while some require hospitalization.

Along with caring for COVID-19 patients and others, Dr. Guevara said his priority is also to protect his staff. “They are in harm’s way,” the physician said, emphasizing the importance of procedures, protocols, and personal protective equipment for his staff.

The doctor is also looking for the help that only God can provide. 

“I’m asking for guidance from above,” Dr. Guevara said. “I make no bones about it. I’m asking my Lord, Jesus Christ, to help us through these endeavors, and to guide our hands.

“And I have no problem praying with my patients, expounding on the fact that we may be calling on the Lord to help us.”

A parishioner of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Keller, Dr. Guevara also attends and is a strong supporter of All Saints Parish in north Fort Worth, where many of his patients reside. 

A physician for 35 years, Dr. Guevara said his faith is his guiding light. “I see it as a beacon, almost as a lighthouse in the darkness. The darker it gets, the stormier it gets, the more difficult it gets, the more important it becomes to keep track of that lighthouse and how it’s leading me through the storm.”

 

FINDING OUR WAY THROUGH FAITH IN GOD
Dr. Tram Nguyen
Dr. Tram Nguyen says her faith guides her healing work as a family physician. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)


Tram Nguyen, M.D., knows about faith being a guiding light in a storm. In 1991, at age six, she went through the ordeal of leaving communist Vietnam via refugee camps and then on to the U.S. Dr. Nguyen credits her mother’s strength and unquestioning trust in God for making that journey a reality. She told young Tram never to lose her faith and to give back to society for the blessings she had been given. Dr. Nguyen has never forgotten.

In addition to her work in private practice with offices in Fort Worth and Grand Prairie, she started Hand-in-Hand: Share Missions, a nonprofit organization that provides people in both Vietnam and the United States with food, medical care, and other basic needs.

For medical services, Dr. Tram enlists the help of physicians, optometrists, dentists, pharmacists, and others in the medical field. Regarding food and basic needs, the doctor finds help through volunteers of all ages and backgrounds.

For one special program named “1975 Meals to Heal,” her organization works with area restaurants for food donations. She also recruits helpers from youth groups at Vietnamese Martyrs Parish in Arlington and St. Joseph Vietnamese Parish in Grand Prairie. Collectively, the volunteers raise money and provide at least 1,975 meals for front line responders, including those at hospitals, health clinics, and fire departments. The significance of the “1975” in the program name is that it commemorates the many Vietnamese people who escaped communist repression and endured great hardships after the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. The food deliveries are made each year on April 30.

In another program, “Operation Kindness,” the nonprofit organization has provided groceries and food delivery to elderly people during the COVID-19 situation. The program also has provided food for orphans, the elderly, and others in Vietnam.

At her family practice offices in Fort Worth and Grand Prairie, Dr. Nguyen treats patients with COVID-19 and other illnesses. She also oversees COVID-19 testing and treatments at some area nursing homes.

So, how can she keep up the rigorous schedule, especially with the extra workload brought on by caring for patients during the COVID-19 crisis?

“It can be really stressful,” Dr. Nguyen said. “But I feel I was very blessed, and my family has been blessed. My mom always taught us to give back whenever we can.

“We’ve been so blessed and the Lord has given us so much. We do things during non-pandemic times, but this is the time people need help the most. That’s why we have to work extra hard right now.”

It’s teamwork with volunteers, Dr. Nguyen said, that makes the help possible. “I can’t do it alone.”

 

Dr. Beatrice Kutzler
Dr. Beatrice Kutzler, an obstetrician and gynecologist, has also treated COVID-19 patients during the pandemic. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)
FACING CHALLENGES WITH A PRAYERFUL HEART


Beatrice Kutzler, M.D., is another doctor who has found herself with a heavy workload during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As an obstetrician and gynecologist, Dr. Kutzler serves on the leadership team at Andrews Women’s Hospital at Baylor Scott & White in Fort Worth. In that role, she has been involved in constant meetings with hospital staff to implement best practices in dealing with COVID-19, as recommended by medical and government entities. Like other doctors, she found the recommendations and regulations to be constantly changing, often several times in one day.

“I’ve been ‘meetinged-out,’” the doctor said.

More efficient and faster testing for the virus, she said, has improved the situation at hospitals.

Dr. Kutzler has treated pregnant patients suffering from COVID-19 as well as others without the virus. It requires extra diligence with personal protection equipment to ensure the safety of health care workers, patients, and babies.

It has also required special N95 respirator masks for doctors and medical staff in the delivery room and masks for mothers in labor. When a woman is pushing during labor, there is a high risk of aerosolization of the virus, the doctor explained, and donning the masks helps to prevent possible transmission from person to person.

The doctor discussed another major change during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in her life.

“I’ve been saying a lot more Our Fathers and Hail Marys,” she said. “They tell you to wash your hands for a full 20 seconds, so I’ll alternate between an Our Father and Hail Mary every time I’m washing my hands.

“It started when I was praying for one of the patients. I was praying that I really hoped this turned out well for her and I started praying the Our Father while I was washing my hands and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s 20 seconds.’ So, now I’m doing it all day long.”

A devout Catholic who attends Mass and is involved at Holy Family Parish and St. Patrick Cathedral in Fort Worth, Dr. Kutzler has made prayer an important part of both her life and her work.

“Before surgery, some patients ask me to pray with them,” the doctor said. “And they pray for me, asking God to guide my hands. I always ask God to guide my hands before I operate.”

 

SCRIPTURE IS THE BEST MEDICINE
Amanda Noboa
Amanda Noboa, a registered nurse, works in the intensive care unit. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)


Many other Catholics in the medical field seek and find guidance in their work by listening closely to the word of God. One of them — a critical care nurse — offered special insight on how Scripture and reasoning has inspired her in her medical career.

Amanda Noboa, a graduate of the University of Texas at Arlington College of Nursing and Health Innovation, sees her work as a blessing as well.

She has spent the past 17 years in nursing, mostly in the field of critical care at intensive care units with hospitals in Dallas and Arlington. One of the most memorable interactions with a patient was also one of the most spiritually enriching for her.

“Early on in my nursing career, while I was washing the feet of a patient, he made a reference to Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. Now every time I am bathing patients and washing their feet, I think of Jesus’ commandment to ‘Love one another, as I have loved you.’”

The nurse added, “I pray before each shift that God will help me to do His work and grant me the wisdom and strength to care for my patients. My faith also definitely helps me deal with suffering and death. Knowing the Easter story makes a big difference in being able to handle those circumstances.”

nurse with child

The reputation of 11 Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word preceded them long before they stepped off a steam train in Fort Worth on April 5, 1885. 

Published (until 6/30/2040)