Encountering the Eucharist in the ICU
2 Catholic doctors cherish the only food that will never perish.
“One day, a colleague who became a patient … made a request that touched me profoundly. Dr. Giancarlo Piano, a sixty-four-year-old vascular surgeon in previously perfect physical condition, contracted COVID-19. His wife of thirty-eight years, Mariann, a professor of nursing at Vanderbilt, told me she was scared. Even though his oxygen saturations were holding in the nineties, she said, ‘He’s just too short of breath.’ Within a week, Giancarlo was admitted to our COVID-ICU, huffing on a BiPAP mask to help with his labored breathing caused by the double pneumonia evident on his chest CT scan. We ramped up his medical care, and I took his spiritual history. ‘I’m Catholic,’ he said, taking in a shallow, rattly breath. ‘Could I receive the Eucharist?’
“As a lay minister in the Catholic Church, I can give Communion, offering the Eucharist in the form of sacramental bread and wine, which we believe is transformed into Christ’s body and blood during the Mass. The next morning, I went to Mass, then to Giancarlo’s room. He was sitting in a chair near the window wearing a high-flow nasal oxygen cannula. After a gentle hello and a glance at his monitor, I knelt in front of him and pulled out a pyx, a small vessel used to carry the Eucharist to Catholics unable to receive it in church. We made the sign of the cross together, and I said, ‘Gian, from the Holy Gospel according to John, after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, ‘Do not labor for food that perishes, but for that which endures unto life everlasting, which the Son of Man will give you.’
“As he consumed the Eucharist, Giancarlo began to sob. I was startled by the emotional intensity and watched as his pulse and breathing skyrocketed. ‘Breathe, Giancarlo. Please breathe!’ I implored him, concerned he might go into cardiac arrest. He began to settle down, and I wiped tears from his cheeks. ‘You have no idea how much this means to me,’ he said. ‘This is the most important thing I could ever want. This is my golden wish.’
“As physicians, Gian and I incorporate science into our faith, acknowledging that when we ingest the Eucharist, it enters the workings of the cells in our body. My faith affirms that consuming the Eucharist helps me become a better servant of God and others (and I readily admit that I need all the help I can get). I believe that how we handle ourselves on earth will echo into eternity, and the Eucharist is both our shield of protection during life and our viaticum, food for the journey, in dying.
“For Gian, the knowledge that this might be the last time he received the Eucharist transformed the moment for him, transporting him beyond the sterile walls of his ICU to a place where he felt safe, loved, and in an eternal relationship with God.
“Dr. Giancarlo Piano, a physician, scientist, husband, father, patient, and a friend, desired to be equipped with what he believed to be the only food that will never perish. I was humbled beyond expression to meet his request. A few weeks later, Giancarlo succumbed to COVID-19, surrounded by his wife and sons. As I reflect on our experience together, I remain grateful for his quest and for its intersection with mine.”
E. Wesley Ely, M.D., M.P.H., is a professor of medicine and
critical care at Vanderbilt University and president of
the Nashville Guild of the Catholic Medical Association.