Medical school is challenging academically — but also ethically and morally. That's why Catholic students at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn., have formed new organizations that encourage discussions on the relationship between faith and medicine, as well as pro-life issues.
A need for fellowship prompted the Society of Saints Cosmas & Damian, the Catholic medical student group.
"During my first year of medical school, a group of maybe six to eight of us would go to Mass together on Sundays, and we kind of felt there was a need for it," recalls Mariu Carlo, a third-year medical student. "We were finding ourselves in circumstances that were challenging to our morals. We thought it would be great if we could share our faith with everything in medicine and have fellowship among us — and invite others, too."
The group plans lunchtime lectures on topics related to medicine and religion. A physician-priest came to talk to them, as did Sister Mary Diana Dreger, M.D., of the Nashville Dominicans. Service projects are also organized, ranging from assisting the local homeless population to cooking meals for the families living at Ronald McDonald House while their pediatric patients undergo treatment.
A prayer group is also part of Cosmas & Damian's activities, with Scripture meditations, praying the Rosary, and reflecting on the writing of saints. In addition, the group has organized interfaith panels with the school's other religious organizations. "It's really opened up discussions that have not been done before," Carlo notes. "It's been really neat."
The group's president, Brian Cruz, a second-year medical student, sees it as a way to supplement going to Mass and other formal faith formation. "People can come together to talk about the faith in prayer or service opportunities. It's a supplemental outlet, a way for us to connect and do things as a group."
For a pro-life but nonreligious focus there is Leaders In the Fight for Every patient (LIFE), started last year by Jessica Adams during her first year at Vanderbilt.
Adams, who is Catholic, recalls that when she was a first-year medical student there was no pro-life group on campus. "Being as pro-life as I am, I saw it as an opportunity," she said.
But Adams felt that it was important to keep religion out of the premise. "As a Roman Catholic, my faith brings me into the pro-life realm. But because the medical school community is pretty secular, I didn't want to bring in the religious component and have nonreligious students be turned off by it or see it as an excuse not to listen, especially since points can be made from the pro-life perspective that are not religious at all, but are based on morality, facts and science. I wanted to include as many people as possible."
The group's lunchtime lectures draw Christians and those of other faiths, as well as agnostics and atheists. "We're trying to encourage others to learn more. We need to have a dialogue," Adams says. "No one wants to talk about it," she said, "especially at a secular institution. The underlying understanding is that you are left to your morals and faith, but don't talk about it because it makes people uncomfortable."
They've covered life issues from conception to end-of-life care. Their advisor, Dr. Wesley Ely, a critical care physician and researcher at Vanderbilt — also a Catholic and adviser to the Society of Saints Cosmas & Damian — is able to share his expertise about these life-related topics.
"There is a climate change, definitely, regarding discussions about life and the importance of the sanctity of life in all stages. We want to hit all aspects of life, that it's all a blessing, that we don't have the right to take it in all phases," Ely notes. "It's the full gamut. Death is a part of that process, so improving the quality of dying is important, the transition from cure to comfort. All aspects of life are important to us as health-care professionals."
He is proud of the students: "They're very committed to it. It's very inspiring. I'm so proud of the students for saying, 'We have to talk about this. We want to have these conversations.'"
Ely adds that he's been "very favorably impressed" by the response of colleagues. "Quite a few Catholic attendings have been coming, especially regarding Society of Saints Cosmas & Damian events. With LIFE, it's a cast of characters — all ages and levels of training."
Father John Sims Baker, Vanderbilt's Catholic chaplain, is also impressed with these groups. "There was a fundamental importance to start this and respond to the particular call to holiness in their lives," he said." "It's good and important for Catholics to be able to support one another in their particular field. You can"t really be a Catholic by yourself." And talking about the dignity of the human person is vitally important: "It broadens the dialogue we can have with other people of good will."
A third organization is also making headway in Nashville: A new chapter of the Catholic Medical Association started last December, upon the suggestion of Bishop David Choby, who wanted local physicians to be available to offer advice on complicated life issues.
"We have had several events at the motherhouse of the Dominicans here in Nashville," Ely says, "with vespers, reconciliation and speakers."
Carlo sees the association as another way to integrate faith and medicine. "We can tie our medical school group with the Catholic doctors' group," she says. "Students are members of both. That's wonderful."
According to Patrick Beeman, president of the Catholic Medical Students Association, students across the country are making sure their faith is part of their future careers. More than 85 new members have joined, and five new chapters have formed or are in the process of forming. "The CMSA strives to inform its members that the Church presents 'a better way' and that we, as soon-to-be physicians, serve Christ through our patients," he said. "Faith must inform practice."
That's what the Vanderbilt groups are trying to do. "We want to know medicine well, but we also want to grow in our faith and be good people to serve our patients well," Carlo says. "There are all kinds of threats to our values in the environment we go to school in. In general, the students just like to have somewhere to express their faith and grow deeper in the faith. It's refreshing to talk to other people who want to live the faith as doctors."
Amy Smith is the
Register's copy editor.