New Catholic Hospice Tries to Ease Pain, Help Patients Get to Heaven
Model could offer hope beyond Denver.
DENVER — Several years ago, a man in his 40s went to a hospital in Colorado with severe back pain. Tests showed he had lung cancer that had spread to the bones in his spine. It quickly paralyzed him. Emergency surgery did nothing to cure his paralysis or ease his pain.
The man had been raised a Catholic. But after getting divorced, he lived a self-directed life, with money, a flashy car and a girlfriend in Europe.
A friend arranged for a visit from Dr. Alan Rastrelli, a hospice-care physician who is also a Catholic deacon. Deacon Rastrelli got him to see a Catholic priest, who heard his confession.
“Afterwards, when I visited him, his countenance had become so calm because he had returned to Christ,” Rastrelli told the Register.
During the next few weeks, the man reunited with his ex-wife and with other family members. His use of a pain-medicine pump decreased, the deacon said.
“The amount of medicine he required was very much less, and for the remaining two months, he was comfortable and interactive and very much at peace with his new [spiritual] birth,” said Deacon Rastrelli. The approach, Deacon Rastrelli told the Register, sums up a Catholic approach to the end of life: Physical needs are important, but at most half the picture.
New Catholic Hospice
Deacon Rastrelli is an attending physician at Emmaus Catholic Hospice in Denver, a nonprofit health-care organization that took on its first end-of-life patient on June 7. (As of early July, it had two.)
Staff members call Emmaus “a 100-year start-up.” Its roots are in Dominican Home Health Agency, which began offering care to poor people in Denver in 1923. Over time, the Dominican sisters died out, the staff became laypeople, and the mission lost some of its focus, said Jean Finegan, who started running it in July 2020.
A little more than two years ago, she helped direct end-of-life care for a friend, Dorothy Campbell, who was in her 80s, with an emphasis on Catholic values and spirituality. The experience led the surviving widower, Dick Campbell, to suggest to Finegan that more people ought to have the same option.
“You’ve got to put God in the room with death,” said Campbell, 85, a retired lawyer, in a telephone interview. “Not just for the person who’s dying, but for the people around. It’s a really empty feeling if you don’t have that, if you’re a Catholic. And it’s a great feeling if you’re there praying and you’re knowing this person is going to meet their Maker.”
Finegan decided to turn the organization into a Catholic hospice. She started winnowing patients and staff, relinquished the home health-care license in April 2022, and in June 2022 announced the new entity.
“I took us down from 30 employees to three and a half. And then we rebuilt,” Finegan said. “We rebuilt our commitment to the faith. We rebuilt our community and vision.”
The result is a small staff of experienced health-care workers who are experts in pain management but also committed to a Catholic vision of end-of-life health care. Emmaus, an independent entity that has the blessing of Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver, will take on as patients Catholics and non-Catholics alike, but it’s up front about its Catholic identity.
“We are practicing through the lens of the Catholic Church with Christ at our forefront,” said Vicki Owens, who took over as chief executive officer in March 2023. “… We are the hands and feet of Christ with these patients.”
End of Life, Not Ending Life
Hospice refers to end-of-life care for terminally ill patients given less than six months to live by a doctor. The goal isn’t to cure patients, who are deemed incurable, but to ease their suffering by managing symptoms and lessening pain.
In some places, treating those with terminal illnesses means ending the patient’s life with lethal drugs. Physician-assisted suicide (also known as “medical aid in dying”) became legal in Colorado in 2016, after voters there approved a state referendum. Some 316 people took that option in 2022, according to state statistics.
While the government allows it, the Church rejects the practice as profoundly immoral.
“The task of medicine is to care even when it cannot cure,” states the “Ethical and Religious Directives” of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which also says suicide and euthanasia “are never morally acceptable options.”
Emmaus staff won’t hasten death. But in previous jobs its staff members have been in situations where they felt pressure to do just that — sent to homes where a patient was planning to take life-ending drugs, asked to help and, upon refusing, forced to wait around the corner until after the patient died, for instance.
Emmaus staff members say those kinds of deaths are unnecessarily sad.
“There is such a thing as a beautiful death, and when you’re in hospice care, patients achieve that beautiful death — naturally,” said Erin Maloney, director of clinical services at Emmaus and a registered nurse.
What is a beautiful death?
“Peace. When there’s not one ounce of tension in a person’s face. There’s not an ounce of pain or tension in a person’s entire body,” Maloney said. “… I’ve seen those one last smiles. The last handholds. The last ‘I love yous.’ I’ve seen a lot of relationships healed at the end of life.”
This Side of Paradise
Emmaus staff members acknowledge they can’t eliminate physical pain. But they say they can manage it better than some places do.
Their goal is partly to ease suffering and partly to persuade patients that suffering is worth it.
“Jesus and the saints tell us there’s another view on the other side of that struggle, and they tell us that it’s paradise,” Maloney said. “But the people that electively ended their lives took a different path. And that’s tough for me. It’s very tough.”
Deacon Rastrelli is a former anesthesiologist who in 2001 decided to switch to palliative care, prompted by the coming of legalized assisted suicide in Oregon and elsewhere.
“I started realizing that this was equivalent to aborting life at the end of life. And I just felt that this was a failure of medicine, if we weren’t treating suffering adequately at the end of life. There was more we could do in medicine to ease the cry to be put out of misery,” Deacon Rastrelli said.
That same year, he started studying to become a deacon. He was ordained in 2005. He says his dual status helps him offer better care for patients.
“I could journey with them both medically, in Western medicine, and also spiritually, in their existential suffering,” Rastrelli said. “How would he help them survive the death of their bodies?” he wondered.
He added, “And we can do that with our beautiful faith, the sacraments and the life of the Church, and with medicine, to help ease the labor pains into new life.”
Paving the Road to Heaven
Emmaus staff members don’t think twice about asking patients and family members to pray with them. They also pray together, when possible — at 8:45am in the office chapel, which has a tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament; and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy at 3pm, the hour Jesus died on the cross.
They treat their work as part health care, part mission.
“When a baby enters the world or a body leaves the world, it’s the second closest place to heaven outside of the Mass. That’s what makes our work so sacred,” said Dr. Val Devanney, the Emmaus medical director.
Dying is dangerous, spiritually speaking, something Emmaus lay chaplain Rachel Guerrera has seen firsthand.
From a previous job, she recalls bringing Communion to a man in his 60s during his final illness, a committed Catholic who would lead in singing O Lord, I Am Not Worthy.
Even so, doubts crept in, and the chaplain “really saw tangibly the despair of God’s mercy. I talked with him about it. Just having it reflected back to him, he was able to see it, too, and he was able to overcome that temptation,” Guerrera said.
She said she has often encountered Catholic patients and family members who are willing to pray but don’t know how.
“If I would come in and offer to pray the Rosary, nobody knew it, but they really wanted me to pray it,” Guerrera said. “… And I think the Lord can work with that.”
If possible, she tries to steer patients to the last rites, including confession.
“I see my role as a woman lay chaplain to kind of pave the way for a patient to see the priest — to show what I call the love of God and the God of love, to the point where they desire the sacraments at the end of life,” Guerrera said.
Finegan is now the chief mission officer, helping Emmaus stay Catholic, and the development officer, raising money, of which it needs a lot. The yearly budget is $2.4 million. All of it currently comes from donations because Emmaus can’t start billing Medicare until it gets accreditation, which will require having about five to seven patients. They are hoping for 30 by the end of the year.
If all goes well in Denver, Emmaus officials would like to replicate the model elsewhere. But first they need patients.
Finegan said, “We need our Catholic community to come alongside of us so we can come alongside of them.”