Dan and Stephanie Burke committed to serve the Church in their work with the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation. The community of believers they have fostered through their education and evangelization apostolate helped them last month as they battled the coronavirus.
The Burkes are familiar to readers of the Register and EWTN viewers alike. At the end of February, Dan left EWTN, where he had most recently served as president and chief operating officer of EWTN News.
Last month, Dan, who has a preexisting lung condition that was exacerbated severely when he contracted coronavirus, was taken to the hospital and was placed on a ventilator in intensive care. Stephanie, who contracted the virus before her husband, was placed under home quarantine. She mounted a prayer campaign that extended throughout the Catholic community on social media, and, within hours, hundreds of people, many under home quarantine as well, were praying Rosaries and Memorares for full healing for the couple.
The Burkes spoke April 6 with Matthew Bunson, executive editor and Washington bureau chief of EWTN News, about their ordeal — and how faith, particularly prayer, has seen them through.
Dan and Stephanie, thank you so much for being able to join me. It is a joy, especially the simple fact that we’re having this conversation. When did you first suspect that you might have COVID-19?
Stephanie: The date was Tuesday, the 17th [of March]. We had traveled back from Denver and then to the Dallas-Fort Worth area. All of the news broke about the virus while we were out of town. And so we were traveling back. We’d probably picked it up at the airport on the 10th. (Dan: at two international airports.) But everybody that we had contact with before that flight, nobody was sick. Nobody got sick. So we think we got [it], we picked it up on the way back there. And so it was nine days after that flight when Dan started to complain of a bad headache. We didn’t know if it was his normal asthma issues. But by the next day, on the 18th, we both had all kinds of symptoms going. And so we knew something was wrong because we both came down sick almost simultaneously with the headache, coughing, the flu symptoms, pain, headache, body aches that were off the chart.
Dan: Difficulty breathing.
Stephanie: Lung issues and intestinal issues. So we kind of got the gamut of it. And it comes on very quickly and very hard. It’s like a severe flu.
How many days did you suffer with this before you were at the point where you knew you had to be looked at, and then what happened — that especially, Dan, that you had to go into the hospital?
Dan: We went to the ER first.
Stephanie: We went to the ER after three days because we realized things were getting worse, especially for Dan, and we didn’t know how it would be treated either. So we went to the ER, and they sent us home, basically treating the symptoms and telling us, “We’re not going to test you. We’re not testing anybody unless they’re hospitalized. And you can basically assume that you have it; and go home, and stay away from other people.” And then it was only maybe two days after that that a doctor friend of ours — as we continued to decline at home, a doctor friend that had met Dan, was aware of his asthma issues, his severe asthma problems — called and he said, “I’m an ER doctor.” … And he said, “I know Dan, and I know his symptoms, his condition.” And he said, “I really want to strongly urge you to take him to the emergency room and to do it as soon as possible, because he’s going to continue to decline. And we have the equipment and the care here to give him proper care if he continues to decline.” And from that point of taking him to the ER that night, that’s when — and Dan might want to talk about this — we were in deep distress, both physically and emotionally; not spiritually, but physically and emotionally, because we knew that we were going to be separated there. And I knew that if they hospitalized Dan, that I wasn’t going to be able to see him or to be with him, and that it was highly probable that he could die in the hospital. And we parted knowing that.
Dan: Before that doctor told us to go in, I had come to the end of my ability to treat myself at home. … I had to be intubated and go on a ventilator. And only 20% of those patients, apparently, are surviving. I didn’t know that at the time, but I knew that it was dead serious for me to go on a ventilator. And the other part of this was: There’s a deep spiritual darkness coupled with this virus that is not normal. And the darkness that Stephanie described as distress, I would describe as deep, heavy darkness, almost like a spiritual blackness. And when I went into the hospital, it was like I was entering into a place with no light and no hope. But I need to be clear: It doesn’t mean I didn’t have hope and I lost my faith, or even that I was afraid. It was just a strange darkness that was palpable and extremely powerful. And I actually believed this virus is not just a physical phenomenon, but there’s a spiritual component to it. And that was my greatest suffering. My physical suffering was, I would categorize as, extreme. But my greatest suffering was that darkness.
You’ve stressed the importance of prayer. But at the same time, you’re separated from the sacraments. At what point, Dan, did you realize that you were not going to be able to have the sacraments? And what was that like as a realization?
Dan: It was pretty brutal.
Stephanie: Well, we did get it beforehand.
Dan: Yeah, we did receive (Stephanie: anointing of the sick), received Eucharist and anointing of the sick. We receive the Eucharist close before. … Our parishes here were not shut down very long before I had to go into the hospital. There wasn’t a big gap of time. It was a week. It was only a week. But then our pastor did come and give us anointing of the sick before I went into the hospital.
Stephanie: And at great risk to himself. You know, he did it with a Q-Tip to stand away from us. And we covered our faces and had cleansed our hands. We did have that gift. And I want to stress what a comfort that was that we had that — that the Lord was present through our priest at his sacrifice. That was an incredible gift to us. And I think it’s something that we should stress: Outside of the power of prayer and intercessory prayer — because there were thousands of people praying for Dan — is also that: the great need and the comfort and the spiritual power of the anointing of the sick and how it can’t go away. We must have it. It was a huge comfort for us to have our priest present, standing in the person of Christ and anointing us when we were so very ill.
Exactly. And that was one of the very questions that I had for you, and that is, the role of prayer — but in particular of intercessory prayer, because I can speak to the many thousands of people who were praying for you the minute that we all heard that you had been hospitalized.
Dan: I really had no doubt. Stephanie can give you a specific directive she got from her spiritual director, but Matthew, this is clearly not [what should have happened]; I’m not supposed to be on the recovered list. My conditions — it’s just not supposed to happen on a human level. And I really believe that the Lord heard the cries of so many good people, who — my wife, most particularly — poured out their hearts and said, you know: Give it more time. Because of the darkness, because of the unique kind of stress of intubation and a ventilator, because of how sick I was, the only kind of prayer I could pray was offering up my suffering for specific people. … And I would just say a very simple [prayer] for this person, for this purpose: “I join with you and in your suffering for the redemption of the world.” And that was the extent of my prayer the whole time. It was never more complicated than that. And because I couldn’t do any more, I didn’t ask for relief. I didn’t even ask to be spared, because this year, for some reason, I had made a commitment to the Lord — it may have been through the Stations of the Cross or something — and just said, “Whatever death you have for me, I accept. And I desire what you desire for me, and I’ll be healed.” And so I never asked — it was just only reparation and surrender and intercession, for taking that suffering and joining it with Christ, to bring about the redemption of souls and of the protection of the Avila Institute through this economic storm. You know, that sort of thing.
Stephanie: I had taken [time to send] a message to my spiritual director to tell her that they had taken Dan into the emergency room, or into the hospital, that he had been admitted, and we began to pray. And she sent me a message after she had gone into prayer herself, and she came back out of prayer and texted me. And she said, “Stephanie, I heard ‘rally your troops.’” And she said, “You need to rally your troops.” “Apostoli Viae” was all the text said. And I knew immediately what it meant. And I said, “Yes.” And I sat down to create a call to prayer. And I included a quote from St. Joan of Arc that says, “Courage; do not fall back.” And I included a Memorare because I remember St. Teresa of Calcutta had something that she called a “flying Memorare,” where you would pray nine Memorares in a row, like a novena, for a particular petition to Our Lady, knowing that her Immaculate Heart is going to triumph. And then you would give a 10th Memorare in thanksgiving, in anticipation that the prayer would be answered. So I wrote that up, and we stormed heaven. I sent it out to our community, and I said, “Send this as far and wide as you can get it.” And so it went out through our Facebook pages, up through Apostoli. Everybody was sharing it. And then when Dan was intubated, I prayed again. … And three days after Dan had been admitted into the hospital, I got a message after we had been storming heaven and those three days passed; that morning, I got a call from the nurse, and she said, “Mrs. Burke, I just wanted to let you know how your husband’s doing.” And she said he has pulled out his intubation tube on his own. And she said he was lightly restrained, and he’s twisted himself around and he pulled it out. And my heart sank. And I said, “Is he okay?” And she said, “Yes. He’s not only okay. He’s breathing on his own.” And I just wept and praised God because he was breathing on his own. And it was three days. And she was able later that day to put in a camera. They have an app that you can use so that you can see into the [hospital] room. And I was able to see him breathing on his own. And I could communicate with him. He could hear my voice. He couldn’t speak to me. He was sedated, not heavily, but he was sedated enough that he was having all kinds of difficulty. And it was a glorious day, but it wasn’t over; but it was a glorious day, to be able to see him and know that his lungs were breathing on their own.
A lot of Catholics in particular are struggling spiritually right now, staying at home, or perhaps they have loved ones who are also enduring this.
Dan: Yeah, there’s no doubt. But I would also say: You have to be ready. It’s very difficult if you’ve not strengthened, if you’re not strong spiritually, and the storm hits; you can’t get strong instantly. It doesn’t work that way. And so those who have neglected their spiritual lives will suffer tremendously with fear and anxiety that we didn’t have — not saying that we didn’t have some of that, but that was not a predominant emotion. But for those who are prepared and we really work [at growing strong in faith], I was prepared to die: We live in a way — and our faith and in our community and the way we pray and the way we participate in the sacraments — we live in what you might call a perpetual state of preparedness to meet the Lord. It’s what we aspire to, and, of course, only God can judge how well we do all of that. … When we entered into the darkness, it was in as much strength as we can have, I think. I mean, also, we’re weak. We’re sinners. You know, we go to confession plenty — but ready. And so I would urge folks who are facing this: If you’ve yet to develop a devotion to the Rosary, then it’s not too late. If you’ve yet to take up daily mental prayer and getting to know Jesus more deeply, it’s not too late. But do not wait till a disaster strikes to draw near to God, especially with confession. Because he’s not going to snap his fingers and make you [into] something that you haven’t given yourself to and dedicated yourself to in matters of faith.
Very good. Any last messages? Dan?
Dan: I would just say we need to repent. We need to make reparation. The gravest sins of the average Catholic are sacrilege and irreverence in worship. And I believe they’re at the heart of this crisis. There are grave sins on the part of the hierarchy that we all know about, but we are not them. Our cry is to the laity, to repent; make reparation. James 4:7 — “Resist the devil, and he will flee. And draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”