Washington seminarian who was ER doctor reflects on COVID-19 crisis
May 15, 2020
Benjamin Bralove worked as an emergency room physician for six years in Manhattan and the Bronx before becoming a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Washington. In a recent interview with Mark Zimmermann, the editor of the Catholic Standard, he reflected on the COVID-19 pandemic from his perspective as a former ER doctor who is now studying for the priesthood.
What drew you to the field of medicine?
“Long before I ever considered a vocation to the priesthood, I was fascinated and drawn to the field of medicine. The first thing that sparked my interest was a volunteer pamphlet that arrived at my door early in high school for the local volunteer rescue squad. It showed a dramatized picture of firefighters battling the flames of a burning building and paramedics rushing in with a stretcher to save lives. Looks exciting!
“When I turned 16, I began volunteering at the Wheaton Volunteer Rescue Squad and while I loved the excitement of riding on ambulances, I began to appreciate something else: being able to provide something life-giving to others in desperate need. It was this feature of medicine that continued to fuel my interest in college and medical school.”
Before entering the seminary, you worked for six years as an emergency room physician in Manhattan and the Bronx. What was that day-to-day experience like for you, what did you learn about yourself and about life?
“One of the great things about the day-to-day life of Emergency Medicine is that you have no idea what you are walking into when you come to work. Is the ER going to be relatively quiet or are there going to be stretchers filled with patients lining the hallways? The hospitals in the Bronx saw a lot of victims of violent crime. Is tonight going to be a night filled with gunshot wounds or maybe a more quiet evening of heart attacks and asthma?
“Working in the ER makes you encounter that despite the securities afforded to us by our modern technologies, life is still incredibly fragile. So many people with seemingly secure and comfortable lives were completely upended by a sudden catastrophic accident or illness. The ER helped me to appreciate this fragility while understanding that there are limitations to what one can do to mitigate it.”
In recent weeks, New York City has become the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. What’s been going through your mind and your heart as you’ve watched this situation unfold there?
“My first thought is of all my amazing colleagues that I left behind who are on the front lines daily risking not only their own health but the health of their families they come home to as well. Furthermore, I know how overwhelmed the hospital systems can be during a regular flu season, so the pressure that this pandemic has placed on an already strained system is unimaginable. They are amazing physicians and nurses working under difficult circumstances, and I am praying for them!”
Have you been in touch with some of your former medical colleagues now working on the front lines of the pandemic? What have they told you, and what have you told them?
“A few weeks ago, my colleagues in New York City were relating to me the number of people they were putting on ventilators in one shift. Numbers that I could not have imagined previously! When an ER has even three or four patients on a ventilator, nursing resources are severely taxed and operations in the ER significantly affected. They were telling me that during each shift six to eight patients were being intubated and ventilated! Thanks be to God, the stay-at-home orders have been effective and these numbers are much improved.
“I can only offer them my encouragement. Ultimately, taking care of people in disaster situations is what our specialty is all about. That doesn’t make doing it any easier or less emotionally burdensome, especially when this particular disaster is lasting months and compounded by stressful close-quarter quarantining at home.”
What do you think about the scenes of people cheering medical workers in New York as they’ve completed their shifts, what does that mean to you to see that?
“I think that shift in attitude toward medical workers is greatly appreciated. People may have forgotten, but during the very beginning of the pandemic, medical workers were being ostracized in public places and even in their own apartment buildings by non-medical workers. The efforts to recognize their labors are an important first step but need to be supplemented with measures to minimize the effects of burnout. Words of appreciation ring hollow when they are coupled with increased hours, steep pay cuts, and lack of personal protective equipment needed to see and take care of patients safely.”
Now as a seminarian, what have your prayers been, for the medical workers on the front lines of the pandemic, for the patients suffering from the coronavirus, and for their loved ones?
“My prayers have been first for a quick and miraculous end of this plague and the healing of all who are suffering because of COVID-19. I pray for the health and safety of those who are delivering healthcare today. I pray for an increase in patience and fortitude so that they can bear the emotional and psychological stressors with grace. I pray for an increase of a serene and confident peace that only Christ can provide for the many gripped by fear and anxiety.”
How has the coronavirus crisis impacted your studies and life as a seminarian, and has this pandemic reinforced in your mind and in your heart what you mentioned to me in our September 2018 Catholic Standard interview, about the importance of bringing Christ’s healing to others?
“Like everyone, my life has also been impacted by the coronavirus. We have closed the seminary and moved to live in parishes. Our classes were held online and meetings conducted via Zoom.
“Seeing the pews empty during this pandemic brings into focus the spiritual effects of a physical disease. It can easily be forgotten that spiritual wounds are as in just as much need of healing as the physical ones.
“The necessary medicine is the sacraments. It should be noted that fostering an increased life of prayer at home is the first necessary life-saving intervention akin to putting pressure on a bleeding wound. However, the curative treatment is found in the Body and Blood of Christ. Let us pray that we can quickly restore access to this life-saving sacrament while taking appropriate precautions to prevent unnecessary spread of disease.”
(Benjamin Bralove, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Washington, will be attending the Pontifical North American College in Rome this fall. His home parish is the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Washington, D.C., and his summer assignment is at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Parish, also in Washington.)