Catholic College Graduates Embrace Their COVID Mission

Formed by Catholic higher education, health-care providers serving pandemic patients rely on their training — and their faith.

Clockwise from top left: Lisa Cooper, Isaac Kissi, Jennifer O’Neill, Shaye Evers and  Aliyah Hofman are on the front lines of the pandemic.
Clockwise from top left: Lisa Cooper, Isaac Kissi, Jennifer O’Neill, Shaye Evers and Aliyah Hofman are on the front lines of the pandemic. (photo: Courtesy of subjects)

When Aliyah Hofman decided to leave California to serve as a travel nurse in Queens, New York, she knew she was running the risk of being exposed to COVID-19 — but that was not the diagnosis she ended up with. 

“When I came out here, I was in full PPE [personal protective equipment], sweating all day. You want to drink water, you want to eat, but you’re so scared. It’s not just the patients: The staff is sick,” said Hofman, 36. “You can get it from the break room.”

“And it’s not just as easy as taking a drink. It’s a whole decontamination process, washing your face — everything.” 

When she ended up with a kidney stone, she said, “I dreaded going to the ER. 

“If you went to the ER in New York, you would come out COVID-positive.” 

Instead, she changed her habits to treat the kidney stone, forcing herself to drink a lot of water and a lot of cranberry juice. 

The kidney stone complicated Hofman’s life personally, while professionally she continued dealing with situations she had never encountered before. 

“We’re built on compassion and helping. We’ve never had to choose [which patient gets which kind of help],” explained the Xavier University alumna. “That’s something we’ve never been trained on. 

“It makes you want to come back and help even more. I know people think I’m crazy, but I know I’m supposed to be here. I’m 100% walking in my purpose.” 

 She and other graduates of Catholic colleges and universities in the medical field have been on the front lines from the start of the pandemic, long before the vaccine rollout began.

The Right Thing to Do

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life in the United States, with working parents taking on the role of schoolteachers, families sheltering in place and face masks becoming a common sight. And it has changed the medical profession, too, with nurses and doctors making tough decisions multiple times a day, developing careful routines to prevent work-worn scrubs from contaminating the home and, in some cases, choosing to live separately from family to preserve safety. 

That was the unexpected situation Lisa and Quentin Cooper found themselves in when San Mateo County, California, where they live with their six children, shut down earlier than Santa Cruz County, where Lisa works as the CEO of a surgery center. Not a problem, Lisa, 52, thought — at first. She could just go to the surgery center after hours to do her work, since she had people on staff running the day-to-day operations. 

“It definitely was a decision I preferred,” she admitted. “But it just didn’t feel right.”

Ultimately, she moved temporarily to a rental in Santa Cruz County so she could focus on serving patients, and Quentin stayed at home to manage the family and continue running his law firm. 

“Everyone keeps thinking about ‘What is the right thing to do?’ — but there are mixed messages out there,” said Lisa. “There definitely were days when I was thinking, ‘This is the right thing to do, to be preparing for something we don’t know is going to happen,’ while Quentin is having two Zoom meetings and trying to make sure the eighth-grader checks in to his school.”

Technology has allowed the family to have dinners together, with Lisa present virtually. She also is partly responsible for the meals, since she orders meal kits to be delivered to the family each week; that takes the planning load off Quentin’s shoulders, so he merely has to follow the recipes and get the food on the table. The two of them video call regularly, to try to stay on the same page. 

“I think it’s working,” said Quentin, 54. “I think the jury’s out on whether it’s been working well.”

“Certainly what is the right thing to do is not the easiest thing to do,” added Lisa, noting that the Jesuit tradition of Santa Clara University — where she completed her undergraduate degree and Quentin completed law school — formed her to focus on actions that treat people fairly and justly.

“Some things have become more clear, to see what’s the right thing to do,” she said. “Certainly it’s a time for faith to come to the forefront.” 


A New Perspective

Just as it did for the Coopers, a Catholic education both formed Isaac Kissi to face tough days and confirmed the Christian faith with which he was raised. 

He was working in Cape Fear Valley Hospital in North Carolina in February when COVID patients started trickling in. “We had to start making a lot of changes to how we ration our PPE. That was a complete change to what we had learned in school,” he pointed out, noting that nurses typically use PPE once and discard it, but during much of the pandemic, it had to be reused in order to steward the supply for the whole team. 

What didn’t change for Kissi was his focus on treating each patient with care and compassion — especially given that they couldn’t have family visit them in the hospital. “If we are scared, can you imagine how the patient is feeling?” he said. He flashed back to his experience after unsuccessful knee surgery here in the U.S. in 2011 and 2012 and how alone he felt, since all his family lives in Ghana. 

Conversations he has had with patients, however, have shown Kissi that they too understand the stakes involved in the COVID pandemic.

“I’ve had patients that actually said, ‘If you need to intubate me, please don’t. I’m going to fight this as much as possible, so save the ventilator for someone who really needs it.’”

Kissi is now working with the New York State Health Department doing drive-through coronavirus testing. “I had offers to go to the city,” he said, “and my mom said, ‘Don’t call me if you go to the city. I can’t bear it.’

“It’s like being a firefighter or a police officer. You can’t say, ‘Don’t go there, because you could die.’ Every job comes with a risk,” he explained. “Unfortunately or fortunately, this is ours. We’re not supposed to run from it — but we can protect ourselves in a smart way.”

Though his parents raised him to make a positive impact in every situation — or leave a situation where he could not make a positive impact — working amid the pandemic has pushed him to view the bigger picture in light of faith. 

He began reaching out to friends and family to try to reconcile old hurts and offer forgiveness for hurts he had sustained. For his birthday in May, he posted on social medial a request for his friends to inform him if they knew someone who was struggling. He pledged to buy groceries for that person, up to $100. 

“I actually had friends contribute! ‘Here’s $50, $100,’” he recalled. “We go out and buy groceries, and you can see how appreciative [the recipients] are.

“To me, that’s faith. I’m not a perfect Christian, but I try to practice love as much as I can.” 


Focus on the Mission

Jennifer O’Neill, 33, had been nursing full time while a student at the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska. When her hospital started reducing staff because it had discontinued surgeries and other services during the pandemic, she looked into travel nursing assignments, ultimately ending up at Yale New Haven Health. There, she works in the ICU with COVID patients — serving far more of them in a far larger facility than she was accustomed to in Nebraska. 

“Every patient has been different, and we have to cater the ventilator to that individual patient, watch the numbers, make sure they’re not getting any more sick — and if they are, what are we going to do? Flip them on their stomach? Some of the patients are going on ecmo [extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, also known as extracorporeal life support], but that is not the norm.

“At the beginning, with the equipment we had and the amount of people that we had, those sorts of things weren’t happening. We didn’t have the man strength or the resources to do that on every single patient.” 

Though she says she has prayed more in the past months than is usual for her, she doesn’t feel anxiety about her work. 

“I signed up to do this job. I signed up to take care of the sickest of the sick patients,” she explained. 

“I grew up in a military family, and my dad always ran towards any issue. He was in Iraq Freedom, Desert Storm. It was my turn to be that person, to be brave, to run towards everything — without hesitation.” 

Sydney Hobson, 25, had about 18 months of nursing experience when Toledo’s St. Vincent Medical Center decided to “flip” one side of the hospital to serve COVID patients exclusively. 

“It was definitely scary at first,” said Hobson, a graduate of the nursing program at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio. “They made it sound like everyone was going to die. You didn’t know what was coming and how it was going to hit you. I was worried about myself and my parents.”

Not only was she working with a new type of patient, Hobson was working in a completely different way — beyond the intense focus on masks, gowns and double layers of gloves. Rather than distributing medication to patients at regular intervals, for instance, Hobson and her colleagues “clustered” medication, administering it all at one time to minimize exposure. Rather than facilitating family visits to patients, she facilitated Zoom calls to allow patients to communicate with their loved ones.  

“The majority of the time, the things you deal with all the time, you feel like you’re doing everything for these patients and some people aren’t thankful for everything you’re doing for it,” she said of pre-pandemic nursing. That changed during her months in the COVID ward. 

“To see them get extubated, go to rehab, the step-down [recovering] patients, to see them walking out — for someone to be so thankful, and hold your hand, and start to cry — it made nursing worth it. We actually made a difference.”

But the Toledo, Ohio, resident didn’t wallow in fear — she used it. 

“My fear turned into motivation,” she explained. 

“These patients are all by themselves in these rooms. The intubated patients are all sedated — but they say they can hear you, so every time I went in there, I would talk to them. The hardest part of all this is families can’t be with their family members. I try to be that support for them, because they’re not there.”


Healthy Faith

Hobson, who is not Catholic, found herself relying more on her faith during her long shifts serving COVID patients. She often prayed for protection as she rode up to her hospital floor on the elevator and prayed a prayer of thanksgiving once she was safely home again. 

Shaye Evers, 23, is equally dedicated. 

“This is my mission field,” she said. 

After graduating from Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in May 2019, Evers signed up with the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers for an 11-month program. Living in community with other Vincentian Volunteers, Evers has been working at the Stout Street Health Center, a clinic that serves Denver’s homeless. It was not a surprising move, given the Franciscan values Viterbo instilled in her, she said. “We did so much service at Viterbo. We had Service Sundays once a month that I was very active in — that has been a foundation for me that has really played out in my role this year. I know I’m not getting paid, but in a way, I’m getting the best reward ever.” 

Pre-coronavirus, a typical day for Evers included serving patients who needed anything from an anti-psychotic injection to education about diabetic-friendly diets. Now the clinic is focused on serving acute needs in person and doing telemedicine and phone triage whenever possible. The toughest part for Evers is being far from her family in Wisconsin and not being able to see her favorite patients regularly. Nursing patients amid a pandemic — well, that doesn’t faze her. 

“I just think about Jesus loving the leper, and he was right out there with everyone else,” she explained. “If he can do it, I can.” 

Register correspondent Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.