COVID survivors

Emanuele Morso, left, receives spiritual therapy from chaplain Susan Doubet, who offers him Communion, at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton.

CHICAGO — On the dresser in Emanuele Morso’s hospital room stand two religious artifacts.

One he brought from home — a statue of Our Lady of Mount Carmel holding baby Jesus. The other is a crucifix given to Morso by Susan Doubet, a chaplain at the Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton, where he is recovering after contracting COVID-19 in June.

Doubet works in spiritual care and helps patients sort through complex questions, such as why they are alive when others are not, and what to do about the way life looks now.

“They’d be having these really mixed experiences or emotions — a lot of gratitude for having survived, and at the same time, being really thrown for a loop,” she said. “We have these times in our lives that are those big moments, those scary moments. That’s a time when we turn toward those big questions, those existential questions.”

Many wrestle with what it all means

Recently, Morso, 69, who goes by Elio, received a letter from his niece. It revealed that after months of not praying, she began praying for him.

“This is the purpose,” Morso said lying in his hospital bed while his wife, Janet Morso, sat in a chair beside him. “I hope it helps people come back to God.”

He said doctors thought he wouldn’t come off the ventilator.

“The whole experience has been horrible,” he said.

He does believe, however, that the weeks of prayers — spoken by friends and relatives during regular Zoom rosaries, and moments like his niece returning to talking to God — are why he is getting better and soon ready to go home.

“These things happened to me. But what was happening outside me was beautiful,” he said.

Many Marianjoy patients are reeling from complicated and stressful medical procedures, Doubet said. COVID-19 compounds the stress.

Her patients have been isolated, some with no visitors for months. Some have lost family members while hospitalized. Some suffered nightmares and hallucinations while intubated. Many remain scarred and confused by experiences they may not fully remember.

They ask the spiritual care staff, “What is my purpose now?”

“The role of the chaplain is to walk with this person, sit with this person and help them flesh this out for themselves,” Doubet said. “We’re not providing any answers, but we’re helping to facilitate their reflections. We’re helping them to hear their own questions.”

Each patient is visited by a spiritual care staffer. Doubet helped Morso with Communion. Patients are also offered things like meditation exercises and aromatherapy.

“They’re not just a body,” said Doubet, who tries to understand what spirituality means to each patient. “They have minds and spirits and feelings, and we don’t just care for the body. We care for all of that.”

Finding a purpose

Almost every person she meets finds purpose in protecting others, she said.

“A lot of people felt like, ‘I have something to do,’ whether they’re religious or not,” she said. “I’ve had people say, I didn’t take this too seriously at first, and now I want to tell people, ‘I just spent three months in the hospital.’”

For Morso, life will look different. His lungs are scarred by COVID-19. His exhausted body struggles to move. A recent afternoon of occupational and physical therapies included practicing actions such as lifting an arm to put a dish in a cabinet and shifting his body from a chair to a wheelchair.

Morso had retired after years of being an internal medicine physician. He and his wife enjoyed weekly gatherings with his grandchildren, whom the Sicily native was teaching how to tell when pasta is perfectly cooked.

It was at a Father’s Day gathering that he contracted the virus; his son had it and did not know. Janet Morso, 67, also got it. She lost her sense of smell for a short period, but did not experience any other symptoms, she said.

Elio Morso was tested for the virus on June 25. On July 5, he was taken to Northwestern’s Central DuPage Hospital by ambulance and ultimately put on a ventilator.

“What I remember is being face down for days,” he said. “It became like torture.”

He does not remember being intubated. “Everything is blended,” he said. Janet Morso recalls a doctor saying her husband was blown away by the change of date. He was weaned off the ventilator in September.

He arrived at Marianjoy that month. He is scheduled to be discharged Oct. 15.

Every day he requests a visit from the spiritual care team. On a recent afternoon, Doubet brought him a Communion cup. They said the Lord’s Prayer together: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.” Janet Morso’s hands were folded below her mask to pray.

Doubet prayed, “Send your healing spirit to rejuvenate and strengthen Emanuele, all those who love and care for him, and we thank you for your many blessings.”

When the couple met in Florence in 1973, he was an atheist and she was a Catholic. Around 2000, he had what he describes as a conversion.

Looking back, he said he saw signs — different times that pointed to Mary, the mother of Jesus, for example. Days and places that Catholics associate with her have been meaningful in his life, he said. He passed his licensing exam in Baltimore, which he noted was in Maryland. And now, he is at Marianjoy.

Faith is a gift, he said, freely given. But it works best if people can give too. He likens it to receiving a bouquet of flowers. “You receive it as a gift, but you have to do your part. Put it in water,” he said. “And then it grows.”

This year has not changed his faith, he said. In the hospital, he had accepted death.

But God, he said, did not want him yet.

“One of the purposes why you’re still alive,” he said, “is to share.”