Medicine is an honorable profession for all practitioners of the healing arts. But for Catholic physicians and medical students filled with zeal for the faith, it is even more. It is something like a calling.
“As physicians we are in a unique position. We are asked to do things that are so personal to the body, and we must have great respect for each person,” says Dr. Caroline Johnson, who is completing her first year of a combined internal medicine and pediatrics residency at Banner Health Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix.
Johnson, a 1997 graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., says that her Catholic faith provides her with proper perspective. “Through the eyes of faith I see each one of my patients as created by God, as another child of God.”
Medical student Jaime Rehmann is amazed by God’s handiwork.
“The more I study the human body and the intricacies of how it works, down to the atomic level, it blows me away,” she says. “I’m grateful for my faith to interpret it all. It makes me more thankful for the gift of creation and how amazing God is.”
Rehmann just completed her second year at the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine. The 2004 graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville spent a year volunteering with medical missions in Ecuador prior to starting medical school.
Fellow student Kasia Szymanek is also in awe of the human body, seeing it as a masterpiece of God’s creative artistry.
“I have really seen God’s hand as I’ve studied embryology, or the study of how an embryo develops,” she says. “Honestly, it’s my favorite subject.”
Szymanek just finished her first year at Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences College of Osteopathic Medicine.
The dignity of the human person is central to Szymanek. “You are dealing with people who are made in the image and likeness of God himself and therefore you take this calling very seriously,” notes the 2004 graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and former missionary with Fellowship of Catholic University Students.
Their unwavering devotion to the body of Christ prompts these young women to stand up for the tenets of the Catholic faith during hospital rounds or in the classroom.
The culture of death proves challenging for Johnson. She has often had to defend the Church’s teachings on end-of-life issues in the intensive-care unit and on pro-life issues in the clinic.
“I’ve had hard calls to make,” she says. “There have been a few times I’ve had to say No to a prescribed treatment. It wasn’t comfortable, but it led to conversation and to good outcomes.”Love of Life
Standing strong for Catholic teaching has reinforced Rehmann’s personal faith.
“It’s taking it out of the realm of the mind and putting it into works,” explains the medical student. “Sometimes people look at me like I’m crazy, or naïve, hoping that I’ll come around. They say there’s no way you can practice like that. But I know good, Catholic physicians who are standing for the faith. They’re amazing and inspiring.”
Rehmann’s faith prompted her to help start a new club, Medical Students for Life, for which she served as president this past year.
Szymanek, too, is dedicated to the pro-life movement. She will serve as the president of her school’s pro-life club this coming school year. Last fall, she joined the cause to oppose Missouri’s Constitutional Amendment 2, a stem-cell research initiative.
Although disappointed that the amendment passed (by a narrow margin), Szymanek is even more determined to be a pro-life voice in medicine by upholding the Church’s stance on life and reproductive health. “A great majority of people in medicine are not pro-life,” she says, “and that makes me want to stand up and fight for life with everything I’ve got.”
Sunday Mass is not enough for these young women. The notable challenges in medicine prompt them to constantly seek the Divine Physician.
Caroline Johnson’s weekly hour of Eucharistic adoration provides a spiritually nutritive boost. “There, at the master’s feet, I get my weekly strength to do my 30-hour days,” she says. Prayer, she has found, must be continuous. “I pray all of the time. I constantly ask for strength. I pray about my patients’ treatment. I have to keep rooted in the faith.”
Szymanek agrees. “You have to keep your eyes focused on Jesus,” she says.
Daily prayer, Scripture and participation in Kansas City’s vibrant Catholic young-adult community help her stay focused. So does daily Mass. During her lunch hour, Szymanek attends Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Kansas City. “There I can refocus,” she says, “to give everything to God and get strength.”Patient Prayer
For Jaime Rehmann, morning prayer is a must. “I’ve found that I need to get my prayer time in the morning; otherwise, it gets lost in classes and studies,” she says, adding that she prays a simple prayer just before meeting with patients: “Be with me, Jesus!”
Throughout the day she offers up her efforts. “As so many of the great saints have said, our work, our studies can be a prayer,” she notes. And she finds Saturday adoration a perfect end to her busy week.
Discernment is key for those aspiring to medical careers, according to Johnson, who once considered graduate work in philosophy.
“It’s not something to be entered into lightly, given all of the bioethical issues. The challenges are very real,” Johnson says. “You are constantly dealing with life-and-death issues. People can become complacent or jaded. You need to have a formed conscience. You need to sit down and pray about it.”
Prayerfully learn about Church teachings, Rehmann advises pre-med students.
“Of course you need to prepare yourself by taking biology and chemistry classes,” she says, “but also fortify yourself with prayer and a good, sound understanding of why the Church teaches what it does about contraception and abortion and other life and death issues. Really seek to understand so that you can defend and explain them to others.”
Says Kasia Szymanek: “Devout Catholics are very needed in this field, and I see a lot of hope for the future for medicine becoming more pro-life. It is very exciting to be fighting in this battle and giving yourself completely to Christ so that he can use you for his glory.”
Amy Smith writes from