Tag Archives: gospel of life

Following the Doctor-Saint of faithful medicine

Through medical clinics that bear her name, St. Gianna Molla continues to provide health care to families around the globe while proving to society that modern medicine can be practiced along ethical and religious guidelines.

Two Legates who are physicians – Doctors Max Mercado in Philadelphia and Robin Goldsmith in Green Bay, Wisconsin – have drawn inspiration from the 20th century Milanese pediatrician who was a devout Catholic, wife, and mother who sacrificed her own life in a troubled pregnancy so that her fourth child could be born.

Mercado and Goldsmith have opened clinics named for St. Gianna Molla in their respective cities, who was canonized in 2004 by Pope St. Pope John Paul II. Though she died in 1962 at age 39, St. Gianna’s story and her pro-life example continues to inspire people around the world. The Legates who have opened clinics under her patronage believe St. Gianna has a role to play in reforming medicine and ushering in a true culture of life.


The Gianna Center of Philadelphia opened in March after about a year of planning, said Mercado, the president of Legatus’ Bucks County Chapter who will serve as the center’s CEO.

“The goal and purpose of the Gianna Center of Philadelphia is to lay down a foundation for the culture of life to flourish in the lives of individuals and families,” said Mercado, adding that the clinic offers general gynecological care, natural family planning education, and infertility services.

Those services are provided while honoring the sanctity of human life, the dignity of women, and the integrity of marriage.

“We are following the teachings of the Church,” said Mercado, who explained that the St. Gianna Center does not provide services such as in vitro fertilization. To assist couples experiencing difficulty conceiving, the clinic uses NaProTechnology, a medical and surgical technique used to treat the direct source of various gynecologic and reproductive health conditions.

“We also refer to social services families that are in need,” Mercado said. “And as a mission, we seek to provide pro-life reproductive health care to women and families that follow the bishops’ ethical and religious directives for Catholic health care services.”

The Catholic community in Philadelphia, a city with a large number of medical schools, encountered St. Gianna’s story during the World Meeting of Families that was held there in 2015. St. Gianna’s youngest child, Gianna Emanuela Molla, (herself a physician), attended the event and shared her testimony of growing up as the daughter who was saved by her saintly mother. St. Gianna was also a co-patron of the event.

“This is a saint who captures the imagination of a lot of young women who are exposed to secularism and the culture of death,” Mercado said. “We’re saying to them, ‘Come out of darkness. Come into the light.’”

The Gianna Center of Philadelphia is located in the city’s northeast section and is affiliated with the National Gianna Center Network, which has a string of clinics in New York, New Jersey, Kansas City, and Wisconsin.

The clinic in Philadelphia is also staffed with Dr. Delia Larrauri and Barbara Rose, a nurse practitioner, providing direct care for women and families. Mercado said he and the center’s staff and directors have been getting the word out to local Catholic agencies. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia has also given the center his blessing.

“The centers are pro-woman, pro-families, and they’re prolife,” Mercado said, adding that there is a need for medical facilities that offers women’s health and fertility services through a pro-life perspective. All too often, OB-GYN practices in Philadelphia and across the country see no problems with prescribing birth control pills to address a variety of conditions such as menstrual cramps and irregular cycles.

“There are other treatments besides oral contraceptive pills,” Mercado said. “I mean, what are we doing here? Are we really giving choices to women or are we just going along with whatever the common treatments are and forgetting about the women’s beliefs?”

Being named for a 20th century woman who went to medical school, got married in her 30s, had children, worked as a physician, and is a canonized saint in the Catholic Church can only help the clinic’s mission.

Said Mercado, “Her life is an amazing story.”


Dr. Goldsmith, a member of Legatus’ Northeast Wisconsin Chapter, was praying in Eucharistic adoration when St. Gianna’s name came to her mind.

“I knew almost nothing about St. Gianna. I knew her name, but very little about her,” said Goldsmith, who a few years ago was asked by a fellow Legate to launch an initiative to bring back “faithful medicine” because the medical field was headed “in the wrong direction.”

Asked to think about it, Goldsmith said that for several weeks she prayed, pondered, and discussed the idea with friends and family. Eventually she concluded that something had to be done in the form of a Catholic medical clinic that took care of all people.

“You see women’s clinics, you see family practice clinics, but there aren’t many clinics that really emphasize taking care of everyone from the beginning of conception to natural end of life,” Goldsmith said. “Everyone needs to be cared and loved in dignity and respect according to our faith.”

After deciding to start a new clinic under St. Gianna’s patronage, Goldsmith said she scheduled a meeting to get the approval of Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay. The bishop loved the idea, gave her his blessing and asked what she planned to name the clinic.

Before she could answer, the bishop told Goldsmith that St. Gianna’s name had come to him in prayer. Stunned, Goldsmith said she had had a similar experience. The bishop replied, “Well, of course it did. That’s the Holy Spirit.”

“It’s been one event after another just like that,” said Goldsmith, who noted that many of the clinic’s major events, such as its opening day and consecrating Mass, have occurred on Marian feast days.

“We feel very strongly that Mary has been very involved in making this clinic unfold,” said Goldsmith, the president and chief medical officer of the St. Gianna Clinic in Green Bay.

The clinic is aligned with the Hospital Sisters Health System, and is located across the street from HSHS St. Mary’s Hospital Medical Center. The clinic offers family medicine and a complete range of OB-GYN services and treatments, including pregnancy and fertility care. The clinic is staffed by Doctors Scott Stillwell and Melissa Weidert.

Like its counterpart in Philadelphia, the St. Gianna Clinic in Green Bay does not provide treatments that violate Church teachings. The center offers NaProTechnology and uses the Creighton Model Fertility Care System to diagnose a woman’s specific health condition.

“The approach is very beautiful. It’s about restoring a woman’ body back to health instead of just covering it up with medication,” Goldsmith said.

In addition to medical services, the clinic offers spiritual support. The staff prays together and with patients. In the waiting room are first and second class relics of St. Gianna Molla.

“Personally for me, I feel an incredible closeness to St. Gianna because she was a female physician, a mother of four, as am I, and a wife who was extremely pro-life and loved to teach about the faith, especially as it pertained to medicine,” said Goldsmith, who hopes her clinic will be one of many such facilities across the country that will change the face of Catholic healthcare in St. Gianna’s image.

“She completely embodies what we do here at the St. Gianna clinic,” Goldsmith said. “We believe that every life is beautiful, every life is worthy of respect, honor and dignity. Just as she honored every patient and every life that she encountered, we try to do the same here.”

BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.


Treating the frail as Christ did

Catholic health care has always seen its mission of providing healing and compassion to the suffering as an extension of the healing ministry of Christ.

In his 1995 encyclical The Gospel of Life, St. John Paul II wrote that health care personnel have a “unique responsibility” in that their profession “calls for them to be guardians and servants of human life.”

“Health care professionals,” the Catholic bishops of the United States have stated in a similar vein in their Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, “pursue a special vocation to share in carrying forth God’s life-giving and healing work.”

Recently a few Legates who are doctors shared how their Catholic faith intersects with their work in the medical profession.

Compassion for the most vulnerable

As an ophthalmologist who specializes in retinal problems, Dr. Kenneth Diddie has spent many years screening premature babies in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) for retinopathy of prematurity (ROP), a common but sometimes serious condition. Lowbirthweight babies born at 24 or 25 weeks’ gestation are the most prone to developing ROP.

“If I find threshold levels of this condition, I perform laser treatment on the baby’s eyes in the NICU to prevent retinal detachment and blindness,” explained Diddie, a Legate of the Ventura/LA North Chapter in southern California.

That work, along with Church teaching on the sanctity of human life, helped spur his conversion to Catholicism in 2001. What caught his attention was the debate over restrictions on late-term abortions, in which “prochoice” organizations argue that abortion should remain legal and available throughout pregnancy, even up to 40 weeks.

“When I heard people defending late-term or partial-birth abortion, it was clear to me that they were okay with killing babies older than those I was screening and lasering,” said Diddie, who was Episcopalian at the time.

“The fact that the Catholic Church was opposed to aborting human life at any age was a major factor in my joining the Church.”

Although he also treats adults, Diddie is particularly passionate about treating premature infants, which he says “are the most vulnerable and at risk.” Many of his young patients face other physical and socio-economic hurdles, so he will treat them regardless of their families’ insurance coverage or ability to pay. “I want to make sure, to the best of my ability, that they do not have the additional burden of decreased vision or blindness,” he said.

He hopes his actions — his compassion and care for his patients — speak louder than words: “Even though I do not go around blowing my own trumpet, I think my attitudes are not lost on those in our office or in the hospitals.” His efforts come with rewards. “Several years ago, the mother of one of the babies that needed laser treatment sent me a photo of her son graduating from college,” Diddie recounted. “She thought I would like to see how my work had been beneficial to him. “That outcome, compared with what was possible as recently as 60 years ago, is indeed miraculous.”

Using God-given talents to serve others

Dr. Stephen A. Olenchock, chief of cardiovascular surgery at St. Luke’s University Health Network in Bethlehem, PA., believes Catholics should let faith guide their work regardless of profession, including health care.

“Daily, as a cardiac surgeon, you may be introduced to new people who may have serious medical conditions which placed then in a vulnerable situation both physically and emotionally,” said Olenchock, a Legate of the Lehigh Valley Chapter. “My Catholic faith tells me to attempt to meet people where they are, and to try to use my God-given talents to the best of my ability to help care for others.“

Olenchock has performed some 800 cardiac surgeries, most of them involving heart valve procedures. It’s a serious undertaking that goes well the majority of the time, but occasionally difficult situations arise. He may have to help families deal with the loss of a loved one, or to prepare them to deal with the stress and challenges when a patient requires a long recovery.

“Some of these situations affect not only the families of patients, but the entire staff of caregivers involved with the patient,” said Olenchock. “I very frequently, although privately, pray for my patients and their families, especially in these very difficult situations. I often pray for God just to give me the strength to use my talent to the fullest, and this helps me in the stress of situations.”

On many occasions — often in unexpected, miraculous ways — his experiences as a surgeon has strengthened his faith in God, he said. The “most memorable” case involved emergency surgery he performed on a patient whom he felt certain would not survive the operation. “I actually remember thinking that everything I am doing to try to save this person was not working, and it seemed as if I was actually trying to stop something God had planned,” he said. When the patient “miraculously survived,” it was clearly due to something more than the medical intervention provided.

“I personally witnessed the power of prayer from his family and from all of the medical providers,” said Olenchock. “This was a big part of my own personal faith journey, and really helped strengthen my belief in God and life ever after in his Kingdom of Heaven.”

For ‘the least of my brothers’

Dr. John Marta, a Colorado Springs (CO) Chapter Legate, has retired from the practice of anesthesiology, but he gladly continues to give public talks about his favorite subject, the Holy Land.

A native of Jerusalem who immigrated to the United States in 1960 to attend college and medical school, Marta came from a devoutly Catholic family and received his early education in Franciscan schools. His father was a longtime Catholic school principal as well as an official organist to the Holy Land, where he played for the High Masses at Jerusalem’s Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre and for the Christmas Midnight Mass at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. His mother, who converted to Catholicism, was the daughter of a Greek Orthodox elder in Bethlehem.

“My faith has always been in the forefront of my professional life,” said Marta, who retired in 2014 after more than four decades of private practice in Colorado Springs, where he was a longtime chief of anesthesia at Penrose Hospital and operated a pain-management clinic. When appropriate, he would pray with his patients before surgery. “Patients would request me for future surgeries and ask me to pray with them,” he said. “This, to me, was powerful.”

A mystical experience early in his medical career brought him a fresh appreciation of his work as a vocation to serve the poorest and neediest of society, he noted.

“As a naive young anesthesiologist, I would occasionally complain to myself when I would be awakened at two o’clock in the morning to report for surgery on a disheveled, smelly patient who was vomiting all over himself, knowing fully well this person had no insurance,” he recalled.

On one such night of interior grumbling, Marta heard a very clear “voice” telling him, “John, this person is ‘one of the least of my brothers.’

That moment of revelation changed him. “From then on, taking care of ‘all of these people’ became a duty and a privilege for the rest of my professional life,” he said.

It changed his patients, too, it seems. “At my retirement, many of my disadvantaged patients came to say goodbye, and we cried together,” Marta said. “They said to me: ‘You are the only one who was willing to take care of us without expecting payment. Who is going to take care of us now?’

“I assured them that there are many wonderful Christian doctors who are willing to do the same for them,” he said. Marta said he witnessed so many miracles during his years of practice that he “took them for granted.” What stands out above all, however, are the miracles of birth.

“I don’t know how anybody who observes these miracles can ever deny them,” he said.

GERALD KORSON is a Legatus magazine staff writer.

Keeping Catholic health care on-mission and on-message

Annette M. Walker, a Legate of the Orange Canyons (CA) Chapter, is president of strategy at Providence St. Joseph Health, which oversees 50 hospitals and 829 clinics across five states, and chief executive of St. Joseph Health System. She recently answered a few questions for Legatus about her work as a Catholic health care executive.

LEGATUS: How does your Catholic faith infuse your professional work? Conversely, how does your professional work affect your faith?

WALKER: My Catholic faith influences everything in my life, including how I approach my work and how I engage with others. The best way to look at it is that I work for a Catholic ministry that happens to operate in the American health care industry. I am constantly reminded of and challenged to live up to that expectation.

It is not enough to be a good leader or manager; decisions need to be made in the light of a ministry. For example, a layoff for financial stability in most American businesses might be fairly simple. In Catholic health care, questions about justice, disproportionate impact on low-wage vs. high-wage earners, and dignity are paramount concerns that must also be addressed.

LEGATUS: What are some of the challenges of ensuring that health services are provided in accordance with Catholic social teaching? How do government regulation, the insurance industry, and pressures of public opinion impact the delivery of authentically Catholic health care?

WALKER: The Catholic health care tradition is the healing ministry of Jesus. Most days it is easy to see and feel God’s presence – especially in the provision of care – but it’s always good to ask yourself the question – “What would Jesus do?” If you ask yourself that question, odds are you will do the right thing. My ministry is particularly faithful in its commitment to the poor and vulnerable. Catholic health care is continually challenged by public perception and a focus on what we won’t do – for example, abortion.

There isn’t enough attention to all that we do and the many ways we help our communities. We care for people no one else cares for, support women and children, provide food, housing and educational opportunities in addition to providing excellent and comprehensive health care that improves the health of the communities we serve. That being said, there is intensive pressure to apply secular beliefs on Catholic institutions, particularly in the areas of respect for life — all life.

LEGATUS: What kind of adjustments have Catholic health care organizations had to make in order to deal with changes in health care laws and regulations?

WALKER: We are operating in the complex world of American health care which is becoming more challenging every day. At times, it would be easier to separate ourselves and try to operate in a silo. We recognize, however, that that fulfilling our mission as Catholics means being in the world and witnessing that God is present and accounted for. So we persist. We stand on the things we must, we find partners with whom we can find some common ground of good, and we advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves.