by: Alexandra Becker
Robin Broxson received the call in early August. COVID-19 was still surging in Houston, and Broxson, a chaplain with Memorial Hermann Health System, was doing all she could to help her patients, and their families, hold on to hope.
As Broxson listened, the voice on the other end told her about a 67-year-old who had been admitted to Memorial Hermann Sugar Land Hospital for complications related to COVID-19. The patient, David Runk, was in extreme spiritual distress.
The caller elaborated that the source of David’s suffering was his fear of dying—not dying in and of itself, per se, but because he had never been baptized. Broxson learned that David practiced Catholicism, and while he had been mindful of his family’s spiritual wellbeing—ensuring his wife and children received the appropriate education and sacraments from the Catholic Church—he had never had time to get baptized himself. He also recognized the Catholic belief of original sin, and he felt certain that unless he was baptized, he would not be admitted into heaven when his time came.
“Is there anything you can do?” the voice asked.
Broxson hung up the phone and got to work. At the time, priests were not visiting the hospital and Broxson herself was not allowed to enter David’s room due to safety measures. So she called Sacred Heart Catholic Church and spoke to Father Mark, one of the priests there who regularly partners with Memorial Hermann Sugar Land Hospital. He explained that due to the emergent circumstances, Broxson could perform the baptism herself. All she would need, Father Mark said, was to recite the Trinitarian formula—the phrase, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”—sprinkle water when appropriate, and to find an individual who could enter the room and physically perform the sacred rite.
Broxson contacted David’s nurse, Elsy Jose, right away. Jose, who was Catholic herself, agreed without hesitation.
And so, on August 12, Broxson once again held a phone to her ear, this time reciting the sacred words for Jose, who repeated them to David. Broxson watched outside the room through the window as Jose sprinkled water and performed the ritual. It was a seamless ceremony, and shortly thereafter, Broxson was able to ensure that David’s baptism was officially recorded with the Catholic Church.
“Baptism is one of the main sacraments in your life if you’re Catholic, and I feel so blessed I was able to be a part of that sacred ritual,” Jose said. “I really know how much that meant to him.”
For a Catholic—it meant salvation.
“He was thrilled, really thrilled,” Broxson said. “He was discharged not long after that and we were all just so happy we could have a part in meeting his spiritual need. You could tell, and his family confirmed, that he found the spiritual peace he was seeking in his baptism.”
Broxson said that while the baptism itself was unique—especially because they accomplished it in the middle of a pandemic—the collaboration between Memorial Hermann’s chaplaincy department, community partners and clinical staff was not uncommon.
“When a need such as this one arises, we start reaching out to those who partner and collaborate with us in order to do everything we can to fulfill that need.” Broxson said, adding that she and her colleagues offer their care to all patients and their families, regardless of their beliefs.
David’s discharge from Memorial Hermann Sugar Land Hospital was a celebratory one. Recently, however, Broxson received another call. This call came out of the blue from David’s wife, Loretta. She was calling to deliver the sad news that David had passed away.
As Broxson’s heart sank and she began expressing her condolences, Loretta interjected. She acknowledged her bereavement but said the real purpose of her call was to tell her how grateful both David and his family had been for the effort that went into getting him baptized. Loretta added that because of this, David was able to have a Catholic funeral and mass—something she knew meant the world to him.
Loretta herself has drawn immense peace from the baptism as well.
“He told me it’s going to be all right now, that we’ll be together on the other side,” she said. “That gives me comfort—when you get baptized, your sins are washed away, and so we feel like he went straight to heaven when he passed away. I miss him now, but I know I’ll see him in the future.”
Broxson said that despite the many challenges this year, she has found purpose in helping to fill a gap between faith institutions and patients and families during the pandemic.
“This year as we have endeavored to continue the sacred work we are privileged to do, it has often required finding a new way to deliver care—we’ve all had to pivot and adjust,” Broxson said. “A Catholic baptism typically requires months of preparation, but through our partnerships we were able to provide this patient the spiritual care he needed at just the time he needed it most.”