Face-to-face with a pandemic: Sister Arrianne Whittaker
“COVID-19 has literally changed the fabric of who we are as a global community,” said Sister Arrianne Whittaker, D.O., a resident medical doctor. “I think it has brought the very best and sometimes the very worst out in people. While I’m not glad we’ve had to experience it, I do find the lessons I’ve learned invaluable to who I am as a doctor and sister now.”
Sister Arrianne graduated as a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine at Marian University in Indianapolis in 2019. After completing her degree work, she began a ministry as a resident physician at St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital.
Medicine was everything she always imagined it would be, until February 2020, when the country began its yearlong-plus battle with a mysterious virus. In those 15 months, more than 500,000 individuals have lost the battle, including more than 13,000 residents in Indiana.
Since COVID-19 arrived, Sister Arrianne’s overview of her ministry has significantly changed. Many of her colleagues have seen the changes as well.
“I think one of the most heartbreaking things I have witnessed as a result of the pandemic is how isolated our patients can be,” she said. “But this has helped me appreciate the healing power that the human connection, love and support of a community can have.”
“COVID-19 is such a destructive disease that it has truly humbled all of us as medical professionals. Some days, there is nothing that you can do except comfort a patient. Sometimes, our medicines don’t work and it feels like we’re fighting a losing battle. But I think the pandemic has helped me understand that there are parts of my ministry that are beyond the science of medicine.”
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, Sister Arrianne said she and her colleagues have changed some methods, but much has stayed the same.
“We’ve had to become more fluid and adaptable to change, but the ministry itself, the heart of the ministry, has not changed,” she said. “It’s still a healing ministry.”
Sister Arrianne said she has seen patients suffering throughout this past year and has reflected on stories her colleagues have told her. She said those images and words “remind me of the fragility of life and keep me humble in the face of unimaginable suffering.”
“There have been times when I was truly convinced that a patient was not going to make it, and somehow beyond all odds, they pulled through,” Sister Arrianne said. “Honestly, one of the best feelings I’ve ever experienced in the past year was when I was able to discharge a COVID patient out of the ICU. No matter what happened that day, it was a good day.”
Messages of hope
Sister Arrianne said ministering with family members who are not able to be with their loved ones in their final days has been challenging, but her love for God pushes her through.
“That is the most life-giving part, the ability to get to know the patients’ families through daily phone calls,” she said. “In those phone calls, I am so aware of the vulnerability and fear that a family has. I feel honored, not only that they trust me with their loved one’s care, but that I can be a bridge between them and their loved one.
“Often, I have been asked to bring messages of hope and love to my patient and I felt so privileged to be able to do that for the family.”
Sister Arrianne said going through the pandemic has been very personal to her in that the most important communities in her life, her family and the Sisters of Providence, are at high risk.
“The recent outbreak at our motherhouse affected me quite deeply. Since day one of this pandemic, I have prayed very hard that it would not affect our sisters.”
Leaning on Providence
As of this writing, three vaccines have been developed and OK’d for emergency use in the United States. Despite the unknowns of how the virus will react — as we have already seen new strains — Sister Arrianne said she is leaning into Providence with a “renewed conviction.”
Despite ministering in the medical field during this pandemic, Sister Arrianne said she is thankful for her ministry and would not have it any other way.
“I am so grateful that I am in the ministry I am in because I have been able to work and feel like I’m contributing to our resolution to fight this disease,” she said. “I would say the pandemic has definitely given me a better perspective on what it means to be holistic in my care.”