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.