H1N1 and the Priest

Fr. Joel Priesthood

Even priestly ministry has been touched by swine flu. Our local Catholic hospital has put special requirements in place for anyone who is dealing with H1N1 patients. Specifically, you must wear an N95 “particulate mask” when dealing with such patients. This mask is designed to fit tightly around the face and filter any airborne viruses. As a priest on call with the hospital, I was asked to get fit-tested.


Fit testing is a procedure where they verify that you can correctly put the mask on. First they put a giant clear-plastic hood over your head (it looks like something from a 1960’s sci-fi movie). They spray a bitter mist into the hood to verify that you can taste the bitter material. Then you remove the hood and put the mask on your face and seal it carefully. Then you don the giant plastic hood again and they mist in more bitter solution. “Do you taste anything?” No. Good.
Try turning your head from side to side and breathing. No?
Please talk normally. How about now?
Here is a short passage, please read it.
They spray in more of the solution.
Please stand. Tip your head up and down. Still nothing? Good.
I can now successfully wear the “normal” size N95 mask. It looks like a giant duck-bill. But it could save my life.

The Mask in Action

Two days later I stop by the hospital to visit parishioners. They were just about to call me — we have an H1N1 patient who needs anointing. Please go as soon as possible. A feeling of low-grade panic spreads through my body. I nod with a show of bravery and stride over to the elevator. The bravery stays on the first floor as I slowly ascend. I walk slowly through the hall examining every door. There it is – Room 415. I walk by the door once, then twice, then three times. Yes, that’s the correct door. And yes, it has the precautionary sheet.

Slowly I pull on my mask. It just so happens that there is a shortage of N95 masks. They have also asked me not to dispose of my mask after each use. So I brought my fit-testing mask home in a little bag and kept it with me. They also want to to wear a generic surgical mask on top of the N95. Fully attired in disposable armor, I admire my work in the mirror. I look ridiculous.

I take a deep breath and step into the room. The patient is coughing and clearly sick. Her daughter is on the phone with the parish cancelling the family portrait for the parish directory. We talk for a few minutes and then I do the anointing. Unconsciously I have been speaking loudly, hoping my voice will carry through on the masks. I back out of the room slowly, then discard one mask and save the other. Not sure if I should wash my hands before or after, I do both.

A sense of accomplishment washes over me. I have anointed a patient, and I didn’t die. I also have a new respect for doctors and nurses. What I have just been through is part of their hourly routine. They work every day around dangerous infectious diseases. Any day they could take one home with them. So thank you, medical personnel for risking your lives for us. And just know that if you happen to become infected, I have an N95, and I’m no longer afraid to use it!