Amid West Africa's Ebola fight, deacon and church empower community

Timothy Flanigan, professor of medicine at Brown University School of Medicine and permanent deacon for the diocese of Providence, R.I. (CNS/Courtesy Brown University)
Timothy Flanigan, professor of medicine at Brown University School of Medicine and permanent deacon for the diocese of Providence, R.I. (CNS/Courtesy Brown University)

by Joshua J. McElwee

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Twelve weeks ago, Catholic deacon and doctor Timothy Flanigan left Rhode Island carrying 10 hockey bags full of medical supplies.

His destination? The West African country of Liberia, one of several countries struggling to halt and recover from the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in the region.

Flanigan took the last flight to neighboring country Ghana before routes were shut down Aug. 31. His hockey bags contained some of the first protective equipment -- such as medical gloves and gowns -- to arrive in Liberia from outside the country for use in Catholic medical facilities.

"We joked we were starting the first hockey team in Monrovia," the Liberian capital, Flanigan deadpanned in an interview in Rome last week, where he was stopping on his way home to the United States after two months helping with the Catholic health care response in Liberia.

Flanigan, a medical doctor who is a member of the division of infectious diseases at Alpert Medical School of Rhode Island's Brown University, was speaking about his experience in a joint interview alongside Msgr. Robert Vitillo, an official with the international Catholic charity federation Caritas Internationalis who also recently visited Liberia.

Both the doctor and the cleric had wide praise for how Liberians have dealt with the harsh realities of their situation. The World Health Organization last week said there were approximately 14,000 confirmed cases of Ebola in West Africa over the past eight months, with more than 5,000 people dying from the virus.

"I'm just in awe of how the church has been so present in the midst of the fear of this epidemic -- and the fear is very real -- and the inclination is to run and not to engage," said Flanigan, who also serves as a deacon at the twinned parishes of Sts. Theresa and Christopher in Tiverton, R.I.

"To see the courage and the commitment of the Liberians responding is really inspiring," he said.

During his time in the country, Flanigan worked for the Catholic-run Mother Patern College of Health Sciences, training medical professionals in Ebola response and assisting with community outreach programs to explain the virus to people and help them prevent its spread.

"I was working with other Liberians, who were working in teams together," Flanigan said. "I helped with their team, and they taught me a lot, and I taught them a lot."

"The best way to help is to go and to say, 'What do you guys need done?' " he said. "To say, 'How can I help?' "

Both Flanigan and Vitillo had a lot of praise for the Mother Patern school, which is run by Franciscan Sr. Barbara Brillant and was featured in a report from NCR's sister publication Global Sisters Report.

"I'm in awe of the commitment and the dedication of these nurses," Flanigan said of the medical professionals he met at the school and at clinics and hospitals in Liberia. "And you realize nurses are the center of health care. And they were phenomenal."

Vitillo, who is the head of Caritas Internationalis' delegation at the U.N. in Geneva, spent Sept. 26-Oct. 4 in Liberia. He said his role there was "to bring the solidarity of the Caritas Internationalis federation to the church and to the people of Liberia."

"I really thought it was important for us not to just see all the emails and to have telephone conference calls, but to be there with the people, to hear what their struggles were, so that we could really reflect what the people wanted and needed in our appeals for help for them," said Vitillo, who previously served as the executive director of the U.S. bishops' Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Vitillo mentioned the efforts of Liberia's national Caritas group, which during his visit was developing proposals for how to use religious and cultural leaders to educate people across the country about the virus.

"The idea there was that you reach out, you train the religious leaders, the cultural leaders, about Ebola and get them to learn the facts about it so that they could overcome the misinformation and the panic and the myths about it," he said.

"And then get them to teach the people in the parishes and the villages about this," Vitillo continued. "That's a very, very good and important way to prevent the spread of the virus."

While the recent World Health Organization numbers indicate that Ebola transmission is no longer increasing in Liberia, there is now fear for the situation in neighboring Sierra Leone, where some 1,200 people have died from the virus.

Flanigan said one thing to keep in mind is that Ebola is "terribly traumatic to the entire country."

"For example, all the schools are closed -- all the teachers are out of work," he said. "The economy is terribly crippled. The cost of rice and cooking oil is going up steeply. All of which means the poverty with which they struggle as a people is much, much greater."

Vitillo spoke of the unique pastoral difficulty faced by priests and other religious leaders who are trying to lead their faithful amid the Ebola outbreaks.

"A lot of the things that priests would ordinarily do ... in taking care of sick people, you can't do," Vitillo said. "You can't touch someone -- you can't bless them and touch their head. You can't even anoint them."

"But you can be there to counsel them, to pray with them, to give them spiritual support," he continued.

Caritas, he said, has a number of programs to work with religious leaders "to let them know that they can do that and they can do that safely."

But Flanigan and Vitillo both also mentioned that people who recover from Ebola sometimes face stigma about their time with the illness.

Flanigan mentioned in particular the story of one pediatrician who contracted Ebola while caring for infected patients. That doctor, he said, had a very difficult recovery and thought she was going to die.

Although she lived after weeks of struggle with recovery, when she left the hospital, her neighbors would not allow her to return to her home because of stigma attached to those who have had Ebola.

But to try and fight the stigma, she became a part of training teams that were going through communities and explaining that those who have had the virus are not infectious and cannot contract Ebola again.

"She persisted, and [the neighbors] came around, and she did it really with patience and prayer," Flanigan said. "Her courage was really very inspirational."

Vitillo said religious leaders also face stigma -- even from parishioners who are fearful of them visiting Ebola patients.

"A number of priests told me that their parishioners were very afraid if they heard that they had visited people in isolation," he said.

"It takes a lot of education of the parishioners, because sometimes the parishioners are putting pressure on the priest not to go into that house, not to do anything for that person."

Yet as the struggle to stop and recover from Ebola continues, Flanigan said he wanted to highlight especially the work of Catholics in the fight.

While praising international groups like Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross for their help, the deacon said those groups "generally come in for the crisis and leave."

"The Catholic church is there -- is really part of the community, is there obviously before Ebola and after Ebola," Flanigan said. "And they're engaged in pastoral care, health care, and really supporting the community -- and they're trusted."

"We talk about these terms of solidarity and subsidiarity," he continued. "Subsidiarity really means empowering the local community."

"And the Catholic church does this so well because they're a part of the local community and they're part of the local structures," Flanigan said. "So for me, it was really a privilege to work with the church."

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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