It was July 27, a fairly normal Monday at the parish. I was up early for the radio show followed by a private Mass. Strangely, my nerves were shot, and I had no appetite. By early afternoon I had a fever of 102.5 and felt horrible. A parishioner friend offered to drive me to the nearby urgent care center. Both of us masked up, and we made the short drive.
I could barely fill out the multiple forms required but was seen rather quickly. Given my symptoms I was given the rapid test for COVID-19. A grim-faced nurse practitioner reported the results to me: “You are positive for COVID-19.”
My mind raced as I envisioned all the possible repercussions, and sure enough, all of them would later come to pass. Priests do not live an isolated life — we interact with so many people! Consequently, by midweek nearly 300 people with whom I had been in recent contact were informed that they should self-quarantine for 14 days and be tested themselves. I was more concerned for them than for myself. The rectory and church were then shuttered for nearly two weeks, which was particularly painful given that we had just begun to get up and running after nearly four months of closure.
The urgent care center referred me to the emergency room at Georgetown University Hospital because my blood oxygen level was rather low. My condition stabilized in the emergency room, however, and I was sent home and instructed to self-quarantine. I had been told to get a pulse oximeter to monitor the oxygen level in my blood. So, I dutifully stuck my finger into the device several times each day to gauge my oxygen saturation. I learned that numbers in the mid-90s are good, but I was told that if the oxygen level dropped into the 80s, I was to return to the hospital at once.
At first it seemed that my response to COVID-19 would be similar to a flu. I had a light cough and mild fever and improved steadily over the next several days. Another member of the rectory household, who had tested positive just a day before I did, had only minor symptoms for a few days and then recovered. I expected my trajectory to be similar.
It was not to be. Just as the flu-like symptoms were abating I became short of breath and my oxygen levels dropped into the mid-80s. I was taken immediately back to Georgetown University Hospital and admitted to the Intensive Care Unit, where they gave me 100% high-flow oxygen and various treatments and medications to help fight my respiratory failure. Remdesivir, an antiviral, and a number of steroids were used. Thanks be to God, I began to improve. I spent 11 days in the ICU, however, and once I was weaned off the oxygen and my lungs were clear I was sent home with orders to rest. I was indeed quite feeble after 11 days spent in bed or in a hospital chair. Slowly I have recovered my strength. COVID had finally left the building!
I cannot deny that it was an ordeal, and it did not help that the Washington Post published a piece about me that was filled with distortions and lies. Despite the claims they printed, I have never told people not to wear masks or not to socially distance, nor have I suggested that anyone violate civil laws or norms. In addition, I certainly never said that those who have not returned to Mass by now are lukewarm Catholics. There are many people who should not be attending Mass just yet due to vulnerabilities.
Thanks be to God for my staff, who protected me from the hate mail that arrived, electronically and via “snail mail.” They told me that the mail was more awful than they could ever have imagined. Thanks be to God, too, for all of God’s faithful who did not believe the things written about me in the article and repeated on local television news stations. I am sincerely grateful to prominent journalists Claire Chretien and Chris Bedford, each of whom wrote an article to set the record straight.