I trembled when the deadly coronavirus reached our front door.
For the past six years, thanks to God, I have lived with and cared for 120 women — my “sisters and mothers” — who have nobody to care for them in the Ernakulam area in the southwestern Indian state of Kerala.
Our Home of Mercy, or Karunalayam, is run by the Sisters of the Destitute, a congregation of women religious of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. We care for women who are alone, elderly, suffering from emotional illnesses or in the last stages of life. Founded in 1971, Karunalayam offers a loving place to prepare these forgotten ones with dignity for a peaceful and serene journey to eternity.
Last July, a few of our sisters and some of the residents began to register mild fevers. The local governmental health department urged the sisters to take the COVID-19 test. The sisters traveled to Ernakulam Medical College and a few days later, on 21 July, we received the results that all three tested positive.
It shocked us!
Because sisters and patients interact with one another as in any home, there was a real fear the virus would run rampant. We immediately began testing and, by 23 July, we learned that 63 of our residents tested positive.
Distress overcame Karunalayam. What to do? Where to begin? How to begin? Darkness swept over us. But God stretched his merciful hand toward us through great hearts!
We had to close our kitchen. There was no one to cook; no one to serve. Just a few of us could care and feed the patients most in need.
We ordered food from nearby caterers — a costly option, but our only one. When the food arrived, the delivery boys were prevented from entering the compound; the Home of Mercy had become a micro containment zone.
Understanding our fears and our difficulties, the Rev. Kuriakose Mundadan, who directs the nearby Naipunya Public School and works with the priests of the Major Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly, came to help us. He was like a life jacket that brought us to shore. Taking into consideration the mental and physical aspects of our residents, he gathered the Rev. Jose Vailikodath, vicar of a nearby parish, and Shri P. T. Thomas, a member of the Legislative Assembly of the State of Kerala, for a meeting to discuss how to continue.
Quickly, we concluded that Karunalayam should become a COVID-19 First-Line Treatment Center and conveyed the recommendation to a local municipal medical officer, who agreed. Now, with the appropriate resources, we were able to create a peaceful home environment that helped our patients to recover much more quickly.
But the work was tremendous. As work on the elevators was not yet complete, we had no other option but to carry COVID-positive patients from the ground floor to the second level, as most were too weak to walk. As almost all the sisters had themselves become infected, the work had to be carried out by one of our sisters, Sister Rona, two of our postulants and me.
God kept us safe to take care of others. We are blessed.
The pain, the distress and the hard labor of 22 July lasted until the dawn of the next day. We did not sleep. We did not eat. The stress ripped us totally. I surrendered everything into God’s hands. Then I remembered Job in the Bible, the man who lost everything and yet said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of Lord.”
The night of 23 July, Annie Antony, one of our patients, became critically ill and was moved to the Medical College. But she died en route.
The first death.
It created a great panic as the stories of the heavy death toll in the homes for the aged throughout Europe and North America flashed through our minds.
Fear overwhelmed our thoughts.
I tried to pull myself together, and prayed, “Oh! Lord, what I thought of as mine, is all yours! Always yours!
“I have nothing of my own, the ones whom I thought are my children, are not mine. They are your gifts.”
Our founder, the Venerable Father Varghese Payapilliy, and our elder sisters taught us to surrender to the Lord totally. And our superior possesses nothing, leaving all to the will of the Lord. And so, even when my heart was burdened, I uttered with my lips, “Only your will Lord … only your will.”
My fears subsided and my spirit changed. Peace started to rule my heart and mind. Even in the middle of all the difficulties, it gave me strength to say, “Lord, whatever happens, to your feet I surrender myself. And only for you, I will live this life.”
Still there were many obstacles.
It was a great challenge to find volunteers to serve the sick and the aged COVID-19 patients — it is not at all easy to serve patients by wearing PPE kits for long hours. Sisters and candidates from our provinces throughout India volunteered to serve our patients. Later, religious sisters from other congregations joined us. The accommodation for the volunteers was arranged in an old convent. The Rev. Joseph Koluthuvallil, who directs the social welfare efforts of the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly, trained the sisters and provided us with a machine to help disinfect our premises.
Food, PPE kits and other necessary items came to us from parishes and other religious communities, thanks to the support of the vicar of the major archbishop, Mar Antony Kariyil, and members of the curia. Priests, brothers and seminarians helped pack food for the patients. The church in Kerala, as well as the people from the local municipality, regardless of religion or politics, extended their hands to help us. And with heart-filled gratitude and prayers, we remember all those who helped us.
May God bless them all.
By the end of August, all our patients had recovered, except for two, whom the Lord called home.
Now, with all that behind us, these words fill my heart: “God was with me always, especially with those through whom he works.”