Tales from the Front Lines

Dr. Nate Balmert, Precious Blood Volunteer alumnus from the 2013-2014 Volunteer Year

by Dr. Nate Balmert, Precious Blood Volunteer Alumnus

In March 2020, during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, I remember my ICU attending supervisor reflecting about how boring it was rounding on an entire floor of patients affected by the devastating virus.

I remember feeling helpless during my first weeks as a resident in the Intensive Care Unit—and so little was known at that time about a virus that could kill previously young and healthy patients with such devastating quickness and prove to be harmless for others. I remember the annoyingly loud “I’m Walking on Sunshine” that rang out overhead whenever a patient was discharged. This contrasted with the eerie silence that rang out through the rest of the hospital, with visitors restricted and elective cases canceled.

Being a healthcare professional during a once- in-a-century pandemic very quickly became a mundane experience, as hospital volume slowed, and the air surrounding the very patients we were called to help as doctors, but more importantly as Christians—became poisonous. We learned how to gown up and protect ourselves before going in to save our patients, remembering that “during a pandemic there are no emergencies.”

It was too dangerous to perform morning physical exams, and the patients quickly became numbers on a computer. It was unimaginable to have to call family members and tell them that their loved ones were doing poorly. We were able, however, to provide one last benefit for a patient before he or she was intubated and drew their last breaths of air on their own. We had tablet computers in the ICU. In the past, these devices were symbols of a disconnected society. I will never forget the gratefulness in their voice, telling families they could video chat and the love that they were able to share miles apart.

The pandemic’s victims were not only the patients in the intensive care unit. My colleagues suffered from terrible burnout. I remember talking to one senior resident who had become suicidal—not from overwork, but from the time at home alone and emptiness of “social” distancing. Helplessness was rampant, and doctors often no longer felt that they were able to continue helping people in the ways they had envisioned when they went to medical school.

I read recently that nursing home residents were not just impacted physically by the virus—with visitors restricted, many suffered from loneliness. They couldn’t get the same care and attention from the nursing home staff. My grandfather, Richard Balmert, was one of those who died during the pandemic at the age of 96. He never caught COVID, his heart failing just as my parents and family were restricted from visiting him weekly in person at the nursing home. He had survived World War II, outlived four wives and countless friends, but would not survive 2020. Fortunately, he was able to move into my uncle’s house and be with those who loved him during his final breaths as his heart finally failed him.

I write this now, taking a break as I recover from COVID-19 myself. Even though I likely caught the virus while helping to take care of patients with COVID-19, I still have guilt that I cannot keep working. The symptoms are at the same time strange and familiar as I struggle tasting foods I once loved. I also remember seeing patients come into the hospital with the same symptoms as I have now, shortness of breath, sweat, fatigue—but most of all fear of what might come.

One father and son I remember presented with COVID-19, out of breath and afraid. I knew I could not promise that they both would leave the hospital alive, but I also knew I could promise I would be there for them at that moment. The son was stricken more by fear—of his health and of his father’s—than of the virus itself. This all-consuming fear can be as contagious and as destructive as the virus itself. Fear breeds mistrust of our fellow American, of leaders who were not able to rise up to the occasion, of our economic future, and fear that God will abandon us when we need him the most.

I am feeling much better than I did last week, and with vaccines in production I know that the end of the pandemic is in sight. I know that this year has changed me, as I have learned so much about medicine and about healing and about myself. But I also know that God was with us this whole time.

God was there in that final conversation between loved ones before intubation. He was with families waiting patiently by the phone day after day. He was with those whose livelihoods were forever altered by the pandemic. He was with my wife Sarah and me, as we married during a pandemic with only our immediate families. But he was also there via Zoom as our extended families and friends watched and celebrated while watching on YouTube. For those longing for God and the saints with religious ceremonies canceled or moved online, God will be with us wherever we need and look for Him. And he will be with us when someday soon we can love and offer the sign of peace in person once again.

This reflection originally appeared in the January 2021 edition of the “New Wine Press.”

Nate served as a Precious Blood Volunteer in the 2013-2014 Volunteer cycle at Truman Medical Center in Kansas City, Missouri. Go to preciousbloodvolunteers.org to learn more about Precious Blood Volunteers.

For Means With

Thomas, center, working with others to set up a recording studio in a former bathroom at PBMR

by Thomas Weiss, Precious Blood Volunteer

I’m getting better at this. Summarizing, synthesizing, selecting particularly poignant moments laden with “spiritual significance.” My parents ask me to do this when I visit home. We sit around the kitchen table fidgeting with our coffee mugs and they, God bless them, ask me questions as if I’m returning from overseas. My friends on Chicago’s north side hush their voices when they ask me about my work day, like we are passing notes in the back row of middle school algebra. I hope Ms. Hopewell doesn’t catch us! Or, put on the individual level, it’s like a child flipping through the pages of forbidden fiction beneath the bedsheets, flashlight in a vice grip between incisors. The (mostly white) circle into which I was born is undeniably fascinated with my work, just a minute fraction of the labor Precious Blood clergy, lay workers, and Companions devote toward the ultimate renewal of the world. Needless to say, I am gladdened by their fascination. Many are even fascinated enough to offer generous donations, and for this, of course, I am delighted.

And yet, there’s a nagging dissatisfaction when the evening ends and I am alone. At the end of it all, I do not want your money: I want your allegiance.

The most outspokenly Catholic kid in my class at college proudly toted a MAGA hat around campus. His sweaters were Burberry, his shoes Sperry’s, his parka made from goose feathers. I believe he is now discerning the priesthood. After the shooting in Kenosha, another young lady from my college made sure to let me know that Jacob Blake was a rapist, and that Black Lives Matter’s founders were Marxists not to be trusted. She later invited me to Mass the following evening.

Let me be clear: I am not exempt from my own criticism. My parents gave me a car, debt free, on my sixteenth birthday. I attended highly privileged high school and university, never having to work a job outside of class to keep myself afloat. I went to summer church camps with water slides and power boats.

I’ve been to Europe on four different occasions. My family has vacationed in Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and Alaska. My story bears the indelible mark of unapologetic privilege.

I suppose that’s why I felt I felt like Saul on the road to Damascus last month, walking down Michigan Avenue.

A few of the boys I mentor at PBMR wanted to drive downtown to Millennium Park to see the Christmas lights. As we walked toward the park, we saw an old man, homeless, sitting on the sidewalk, his back curled up against the concrete retaining wall that runs along Michigan Avenue. The man was singing, wailing, head tilted up into the yellow street lights, colored intermittently with the red beams of brake lights. He jingled the coins in his Big Gulp like a tambourine.

One of the young men raced ahead of the group and dropped half of what he had in his pocket into the man’s cup. Another of the young men droped in a few bucks as we passed. They told him to stay safe and we walked on toward the Christmas tree. “Man, I just hate to see people like that,” one of them said to me. “If I make it to college, I’m going to open a homeless shelter. I hate to see people like that.”

I was dumbstruck by the unbridled Catholicism of these young men, neither of whom were religious. Both boys would be considered “poor” as we commonly understand the label. Yet, there they were, giving away their few and precious resources to a man they have never met before. I saw a mixture of the Good Samaritan and Mary Magdalene, anointing Jesus’ feet with her precious perfume.

Jesus was for the poor; this much is obvious. What I find to be often forgotten is that Jesus was poor. “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” Jesus tells those of us with two tunics to give one away to those who have none. As if this were not explicit enough, he says to do the same with food. Fundamentally, Jesus means that to be for the poor is to break bread with the poor. It means giving beyond what makes us comfortable. It means giving $10 to a homeless man on Michigan Ave when you have $20 in your pocket. I ask myself daily what it means for me, and I ask the same of you.

To give a sizable amount of cash can change lives. It ferries resources into resource-scare areas. It opens doors which were formerly closed. But the real act of service stems from the realization of equivalence: just as Christ “emptied himself ” and took on the flesh of us sinners, we must realize our kinship with the beaten, hungry, weary, and alienated. Though we are not Christ, together we might become like Christ through allegiance to one another. This is the call of Christ, not toward judgment, skepticism, and cowardice, but toward radical hope, healing, and hospitality.

We—the privileged, the well-fed, the comfortable—risk the fate of the Pharisees if we do not soon recognize that Jesus’ teaching explicitly commands us to eradicate the existence of privilege. The ball is in our court, and the stakes are high. I pray that we, stirred by courage and humility, may sift through the distractions and delusions which obscure the substance of the Gospel: “Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.”

This reflection originally appeared in the January 2021 edition of the “New Wine Press.”

Thomas is serving as a Precious Blood Volunteer at Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation in Chicago, Illinois. Go to preciousbloodvolunteers.org to learn more about Precious Blood Volunteers.

Bridging the Past to the Present

Caitlin Caminade and Keven Cheung. Precious Blood Volunteers Alumni

by Caitlin Caminade, Precious Blood Volunteer Alumna (2019-2020)

It was the strangest thing to land back in my hometown after the conclusion of my service year earlier this summer, and to find that I felt like a stranger in a place that was once familiar. I have experienced so much personal and spiritual growth since I last lived here as a teenager, especially within the past year, and current events have only highlighted the differences between who I was then and who I am now. The combined effect of this global pandemic, renewed conversations about racial justice, and tensions of this election year is that there has never been a better time to reflect on our values and actions. For myself, the contemplation was not easy, but it allowed me to see my hometown with new eyes.

It occurred to me that in order to continue living out the values I gained from my volunteer year, seeking out community ought to be one of my priorities. After reconnecting with an old friend, she encour- aged me to come to daily Mass with her. It was after a Mass in August that we ran into Father Carl, the chaplain of campus ministry for the nearby university. Thanks to him, we were able to find other like-minded young adults who were yearning for community, and we began a (virtual) Bible study about the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. This study and recent events have caused me to ruminate on a certain question: how do we look after our neighbor? I believe that most of the conflicts of today come from disagreements about the answer to this question.

In our study, we recently read the parable of the Good Samaritan, and my friend shared a reflection that challenged me to see a new perspective. Of course I would like to see myself in the role of the Samaritan who acts with mercy and generosity. Several times in my life, I have also been like the traveler, in desperate need of mercy. But certainly I have also been like the Jewish priest and the Levite, turning a blind eye to those in need. The call to be a neighbor comes every day, not just the days when we encounter someone in desperate need. So now the question I ask myself is: whose neighbor can I be, here and now?

For myself and the people in my Bible study, we have had to be creative about ways to put our lessons into action because of the restrictions of the pandemic. We’re writing to residents of a local nursing home, donating items to the Catholic Charities resource center, and having sometimes difficult discussions in our circles of influence about how to push for justice for all through electing officials who uphold the values of our faith. Through the support and challenge of this community, I’ve found hope in the other young people around me that even in times of difficulty we can always discern the next right thing to do.

I am also especially grateful for the experiences and skills I gained from the Precious Blood Volunteer program and that I am able to share them with my community now. It has helped me bridge the past and present versions of myself. And since we have no way of knowing what joys or pains the rest of this strange year will contain, I am glad I have a community to journey with.

This reflection originally appeared in the October 2020 edition of the “New Wine Press.”

Caitlin served as a Precious Blood Volunteer at KC CARE Health Center in Kansas City, Missouri. Go to preciousbloodvolunteers.org to learn more about Precious Blood Volunteers.

Christ the Redeemer Welcomes All

Christ the Redeemer Stained Glass Window at Most Holy Redeemer Church

By Mike Price, current Precious Blood Volunteer

We are all pieces of the stained glass window of Christ the Redeemer. We are an eclectic group of individuals that come together to form the image of Jesus in the Eucharist as a community.

As a Precious Blood Volunteer, we have great opportunities to serve a widely diverse community of people from all walks of life. I am currently serving at Most Holy Redeemer, also known as MHR, in the Castro district of San Francisco, California.

MHR has a deep rich history associated with the AIDS epidemic. MHR opened her doors and hearts to the Coming Home Hospice across the street from the parish. This was the first-ever recorded hospice house opened that ministered directly to those dying of AIDS. The church community came together and would be their first volunteers to care for those who were rejected by families, friends, and their faith communities. MHR is known for being the only catholic parish in the Archdiocese of San Francisco that ministered and offered the sacraments to those who were dying, including doing up to 16 funerals a day for those loved ones who had passed away. Most of these young men and women died without ever having family or friends to hold their hearts as they were suffering. Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church community was the family and loved ones who held their hearts as they passed from this life to the next. MHR was Christ the Redeemer to many as they were left behind by the world.

Some people would also say that this parish is a pilgrimage site for those who are seeking healing from past hurts. This community is filled with former religious sisters, brothers, and priests. There are far more people who have passed through this community to only get a glimpse of God’s grace and love for them. MHR is home to many all over the world because this is where they were redeemed by Christ’s grace and love for them. This was the place where they met others who were and have been rejected by the church. This is a community that has blurred lines of the marginalized and choose to serve their community well through many ministries that are offered by MHR. This is where God’s inclusive love is given to the brokenhearted. The MHR community takes the broken pieces of their heart and welcomes them as Christ the Redeemer.

Like I said at the beginning of this post, Most Holy Redeemer Catholic Church is an eclectic group of redeemed and loved people who come together to form the image of Christ who is our redeemer. We are a community that serves others because we are rooted by Christ the Redeemer.

Mike is a current Precious Blood Volunteer serving at Most Holy Redeemer Church in San Francisco, California.
To learn more about becoming a Precious Blood Volunteer go to www.preciousbloodvolunteers.org

Precious Blood Volunteers Information Sessions for Fall 2020

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