Should you go to a Catholic hospital?

Patients at Catholic hospitals are just that, patients, treated medically the same way they would be treated at any hospital.

There are three Catholic hospitals in the Washington area: Georgetown University Hospital, Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring and Providence Hospital in the District.

All get good marks, generally, from area doctors.

In any Catholic hospital, you well may get a visit from a priest or assistant, one of the hospital's chaplains, whether or not you are Catholic (though you may be visited by another clergyman if you are not). The chaplaincy, or "pastoral care," programs are generally strong in Catholic hospitals. The chaplain's job is not to convert anyone but to offer help or conversation or, for those who want it, prayer.

There are two lingering beliefs, or fears, about Catholic hospitals in the minds of many non-Catholics.

A Washington woman about to have a baby said recently: "I wouldn't go to a Catholic hospital because they'll save the baby rather than the mother in case of difficulty."

And a Washington man said: "If I'm in a coma and never going to come out, don't take me to a Catholic hospital. They won't let me die."

In 1987, at least, these are myths.

In a number of interviews over the last two months, I was unable to find even one doctor who remembered a case in which a mother's life was lost to save a baby. A set of "bishops' guidelines" in use at Catholic hospitals, in fact, outlines several instances where a fetus may be sacrificed, if unavoidable, to save a mother.

There may have been instances 50 years ago when a mother could not be saved but the baby could, some doctors in these hospitals say. "But to sacrifice one to save the other would be unconscionable today," says Dr. John Queenan of Georgetown Hospital, and "in practical terms we have advanced so far these situations just don't come up. Maternal deaths are rare today."

As to the process of dying, Pope Pius XII in 1958, in advance of much thinking elsewhere, said "extraordinary" measures need not be taken where a situation is hopeless and maintaining life only causes added suffering.

Dr. Marvin Schneider, who is not a Catholic, is current chief of medicine at Holy Cross Hospital.

"In 20 years -- and I practice exclusively at Holy Cross -- I've never yet had a patient tell me they objected to being hospitalized there," he reports. "A couple of times, a very religious Jew wanted someone to take the crucifix down."

What happened? "The hospital took it down," he says. "They never had any problem about it."