Interview with Father Danilo Valdepenas, Hospital Chaplain
SAN DIEGO — Father Danilo Valdepenas is one of nine hospital chaplains in the diocese. He’s been a priest for 32 years, and a chaplain for the last seven. He serves patients at the Kaiser Permanente San Diego Medical Center, in Clairemont Mesa, and at Sharp Grossmont Hospital. A native of the Philippines, the 60-year-old also serves as associate pastor at St. Martin of Tours Parish in La Mesa.
Question: Currently, what patients are you seeing?
Answer: About 60 percent are COVID-19 patients, almost all of them facing imminent death.
Q: How has your work changed during the pandemic?
A: The ministry that I do has changed a lot. Before, I used to do rounds, and visit patients in their rooms, especially those who were Catholic. Now, there are new protocols. As soon as I step into the hospital, someone meets me, then we go to the patient’s room. If the patient does not have COVID-19, I talk to him, anoint him, receive his confession and give him the sacrament. If they have COVID, I stand outside of their room. If they can talk on the phone, maybe use Facetime, we pray together. If they cannot talk because they have so many tubes, I pray for them.
Q: How do you feel about all of this?
A: This is not the way it’s supposed to be. We need to be close to patients, especially when they are sick. The more discouraged and broken they are, the closer we need to be to them. This pandemic has not allowed us to do that. The first three months, I felt broken because all I could do was pray for them. Then I reflected how it’s actually strengthened my faith.
Q: What else do you do?
A: If there are family members present, I talk to them. They are always so grateful that they are being remembered by the Church. We talk about how strong we are, how we have to struggle and face difficult situations in life. I tell them that, ultimately, it’s about God, who does not abandon us, God who does not leave us orphaned. Whatever He promised, He is going to fulfill. And I tell them that they and their family member will be remembered in my prayers.
Q: What is your work day like?
A: I used to schedule my days at each hospital, doing rounds there, and have a day off. Now, I’m just on call. But when it rains, it pours. Often, when I’m at one hospital, the other one is calling. Sometimes, they call me in the middle of the night, or early in the morning, because the patient is imminently dying. Your inconvenience is the convenience of the patient. Your discomfort is the comfort of the patient. That’s the way I see it. When you’re being woken up in the early morning, or at night, you feel uncomfortable but your ministry is being awakened.
Q: What steps do you take to protect yourself?
A: The two hospitals have distinct health and safety protocols that I have to follow strictly. Once you leave the hospital, you have to go directly to your room and wash yourself, launder your clothes, and then you have to go to the other hospital. I take three to four showers a day. We have to be responsible for protecting ourselves and the people I talk to at the parish, when I celebrate Mass and inside the rectory.
Q: How have you been changed by your experience in this pandemic?
A: I have been able to reflect that I am lucky to witness this kind of situation. Somehow, this experience has strengthened my spirituality, my foundation as a priest. It’s made me a better priest and a better person. It’s given me a sense of awakening in my ministry.