Whenever she has bad news for a family at the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center emergency room, Gabriela Perez says a little prayer to herself before stepping through the door.
A devout Roman Catholic nicknamed "Mother Teresa" by her co-workers, Perez became a nurse practitioner 27 years ago to serve her community and those in need. It's more than a job, she said. Serving the needy is deeply intertwined with her faith.
Perez attended the White Mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Sunday afternoon to pray for her patients and for others in the healthcare profession. An annual tradition since 2009, the event has outgrown several local churches that once hosted the mass. Sunday was the first time it was held at the cathedral.
"People think healthcare and God go together automatically, but work isn't always a God-filled place," said Kathleen Grelich, a physical therapist who attended the mass for the first time. "It's nice to merge that here."
Named for the white lab coats worn by many in the medical profession, the service is held around the Feast of St. Luke, the patron saint of healers. Archbishop José Gomez urged attendees to bring "God's love and care to every person and patient" they meet to heal the body and spirit. He called healthcare professionals "apostles of love."
He has a special appreciation for their work, he said, because his father practiced medicine.
"He always wanted me to be a doctor, but God had other plans," Gomez said.
Worshipers, some wearing white coats, stood with their hands cupped in front of them while the Archbishop performed the "blessing of the hands" to pray for their strength, skill, sensitivity and steadiness.
Healthcare workers need to be blessed, said Cecilia Torres, a registered nurse who works for the County Department of Public Health and attended the mass with Perez. Working with patients requires skill, knowledge and love, she said. The field is a challenge, but "God asks us to be servants," she said.
Torres said she prays before each of her home visits; many of her patients are preparing to enter hospice.
In the emergency room, Perez said, patients with gunshot wounds sometimes die in front of her. Comforting the families requires strength, said Perez, director of operations of emergency room services at County-USC.
The archdiocese distributed special pins for the professionals who attended, and several doctors and educators were honored for their work at the end of the service.
Dr. Eli Ayoub, who practices at St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood, was named the national Catholic doctor of the year by the Mission Doctors Assn. Also recognized by the archdiocese was Servants of Mary, Ministers to the Sick, which celebrated its 85th anniversary in Los Angeles, and Sister Kathleen An Du Ross, a cardiac clinical nurse and educator.
"I don't know whether I deserve it, but I will cherish it for the rest of my life," Ayoub said of the award.
The first local recipient of the mission organization's honor, Ayoub said he often works with patients who don't have insurance. He has brought a mobile clinic to his native Lebanon every year for three decades, and his five children now travel with him abroad to bring healthcare to people in need.
"There's nothing like working with a lady who is gasping for breath in the ER and seeing a smile on her face the next day," he said. "It's a pleasure to take care of those patients."