Sister Kendra Bottoms is the last nun working at UH St. John Medical Center.
Although the hospital on Center Ridge Road remains a facility of the Catholic order of the Sisters of Charity, Bottoms is the only nun working there. There are also no resident Catholic priests assigned to the facility, though one Catholic and one Orthodox Catholic priest work at the medical center.
Pre-pandemic, Bottoms visited every patient at St. John, whether they were Catholic or not.
“I just tried to see basically if there’s anything I could do for them,” the sister said.
She is not allowed to physically interact with coronavirus patients. Her only communication with them is by phone.
She asks them the same questions she would of any other patient.
“We find out how they are doing and so on,” Bottoms said.
It’s interesting, she added, how patients react to her visits, depending on how old they are and how long they have been in the hospital.
“Oftentimes we call and they can’t answer the phone,” Bottoms said. “If they are able to pick up the phone, we talk and pray together.”
Are COVID patients more frightened or confused than other St. John patients?
“Yes,” Bottoms said quickly. “They are fearful.”
But Bottoms also notes not many of her coronavirus patients have died.
“Some of the folks I talk to seem convinced they are going to get out of here. I think many of the ones who aren’t going to make it are unable to answer the phone.”
One thing she always asked was if the patient wished to receive Holy Communion. She cannot deliver Communion to coronavirus patients. Still, Bottoms said she vividly remembers giving Communion to two sisters who were outside the room of a relative struggling with the virus.
“They were very happy to receive Communion,” Bottoms said.
The nun has dealt with terminal patients in the past. Dealing with coronavirus patients is, in some ways, a bit different, she said.
“We know in the end some patients always are going to go to God,” Bottoms said. “We try to console them as best we can.”
Bottoms talked about recently speaking with a young person suffering from a terminal illness not related to COVID. She was able to go into the patient’s room and sit and speak with the patient.
For those able to talk with her, one common discussion is whether the patient would like a living will, an advance directive.
“If someone desires it, we can explain it outside the room,” Bottoms said.
Either a nurse or a chaplain takes the paperwork to the patient, offers further explanation or gains the person’s signature on paperwork.
Bottoms said she doesn’t necessarily find her work with COVID patients more rewarding, but she acknowledged it is more difficult. She is not especially fearful of contracting the virus.
“I go to work… And when I come home I pray,” she said.
Unlike medical staff, Bottoms won’t be at the front of the line to receive the new vaccines.
Bottoms said her biggest challenge in the past was visiting critical patients, consoling them, trying to reach family. If the patient wishes, she also tries to contact that person’s pastor. Bottoms also called in a priest for Anointing of the Sick (formerly known as Last Rites) if one of the hospital’s fathers was available.
When University Hospitals took over St. John in 2015, part of the deal called for leaving the hospital a Catholic hospital with a crucifix in every room. Bottoms was not assigned to the hospital, but she took a job there. Unlike the nuns of old, who primarily lived in convents, Bottoms stays by herself in an apartment on the East Side of Cleveland. She lived there with her mother until she died.
Bottoms talks a lot about patients and others, including herself, being called home to God.
While admitting others might not share her perspective, Bottoms is philosophical about the possibility of her own death.
“If God calls me home, it is my time to go,” she said. “I don’t fear it.”
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