Young Doctor Follows the Divine Physician

Meet a 28-year-old physician who is inpsired by Mother Teresa: July 15 issue feature.

Dr. Thomas Heyne volunteers in poverty-striken countries. Here he is in Haiti.
Dr. Thomas Heyne volunteers in poverty-striken countries. Here he is in Haiti. (photo: Courtesy of Dr. Heyne)

Dr. Thomas Heyne is a 4.0 graduate of The University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and the 2012 recipient of the prestigious Southwestern Medical Foundation’s Ho Din Award.

His Catholic faith, family influence and mission travels to Third World countries have instilled in him a deep desire to serve the "poorest of the poor" in the spirit of Blessed Mother Teresa. The 28-year-old Dallas native graduated from the University of Dallas with degrees in history and biology, has a master’s degree in theological studies from the University of Oxford in England, and has completed a Fulbright Fellowship in religious studies.

Before heading to Boston for his internal medicine/pediatric residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, he spoke to the Register about his humanitarian interests in the medical field.

Tell us about your family and Catholic upbringing.
I am the sixth of eight kids: My seven siblings include a nun, a consecrated virgin, a mom, a grad student at The Catholic University of America, an attorney who defends abuse victims and two physicians. My dad, Dr. Roy Heyne, is a pediatrician, and my mom, Dr. Elizabeth Heyne, is a physician assistant and psychologist. Both have devoted their lives to babies and toddlers with special needs. They founded the Low Birth Weight Development Center to provide more holistic care for the families of these children. My parents truly live and breathe the Gospel. As we were growing up, they took us to daily Mass at the Cistercian monastery and prayed a nightly Rosary with us before bed. Their hard work for the poor and for us was (and is) an unforgettable lesson by example.

What spurred your interest in medicine and in particular the medical needs of the poor?
No doubt my upbringing had something to do with it. Physicians and nurses go back five generations in my family, so perhaps medicine is somehow encoded in our genes. Since I was a child, the mandate of Matthew 25 to serve Christ in the "least of my brethren" as well as the lives of St. Francis of Assisi and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta have resonated deeply with me. Personally, I think we rationalize away Christ’s teachings about poverty all too quickly. But the more I traveled abroad, the more I realized just how many people lived in conditions that would be nearly unheard of in the States. The idea of serving the "poorest of the poor" seemed both logical and beautiful.

How have your medical missions to Mexico, Haiti, India and countries in Africa and Latin America impacted you?
From the medical perspective, I have learned aspects of medicine that I would otherwise be ignorant of: You don’t encounter much malaria, leishmaniasis, measles, rheumatic heart disease, kwashiorkor, etc. in the States.
From the human perspective, I have seen humans living with dignity and faith amidst horrible conditions of suffering. I have been humbled by their generosity and nobility.

Even when we receive this or that award, all of us, even on our best days, can only say, "We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty" (Luke 17:10). How many people, if given the same circumstances, would have done much more? I can think of the starving child we found on the ground in Uganda or the many amputees in Haiti or the woman with horrific tuberculosis of the spine in India. Any of these souls might have done even greater things if they had been given the opportunities.

From the spiritual perspective, I have visited countries that have hardly at all heard the Gospel or nominally Catholic countries where many people know nearly nothing about their faith. Even after attending excellent Catholic schools for much of my life, it was not until I met a number of Protestant physicians involved in missions work that I began to reflect deeply upon the Catholic teaching on and mandate to missions.

Throughout your education, you have won a number of awards and have been very active in numerous initiatives. What prompted you to launch the St. Basil the Great Society at UT Southwestern?
The St. Basil Society has been an amazing ministry within medical school. I was inspired by one faculty member who suggested that my strategy in med school should not just be survival, but progress (to strive to be saints, to grow in our faith and to help others to do the same). Med school could be an opportunity to witness to others, to help them come closer to the truth that is Infinite Love.

St. Basil the Great, the fourth-century bishop of Caesarea, was the founder of (arguably) the world’s first public hospital for the poor (called the Basiliad). By invoking him as our patron, we wanted to emphasize the positive impact that Catholicism has had on health care, particularly for the poor.
The success of the group was nothing short of providential: Two hundred people (Catholic and non-Catholic) joined our email list within two years of starting the group. People came to our lunch talks because of the quality of the presentations, often delivered by local physicians or acclaimed speakers like Peter Kreeft. Through these talks, as well as service and spiritual events, we tried to spread the love of God, his Church and humanity.

Do you have a particular mission in mind for your future?
I am fluent in Spanish, and I love Latino culture, so I am thinking of working in one of the more impoverished countries of Latin America, possibly to start a Catholic hospital or possibly to support a Catholic NGO [non-governmental organization] already in place. Of course, I would want a spiritual dimension to my work as well. I could imagine helping to start a school or assisting a diocese or religious organization with their educational programs.

What about the health-care challenges in the U.S.?
You don’t have to be a physician to realize that the health-care system in the U.S. has major problems. But, to be honest, the health-care needs and problems of places like Uganda or Haiti dwarf most of our concerns.

One exceptional problem, of course, is the issue of ethical or political affronts to life. At this time in particular, we must continue to pray for a positive resolution for many of the issues being decided in our courts. We are called to love and defend all humans, including fetuses, the elderly, the poor and immigrants.
The issues at stake in the HHS [Health and Human Services] mandate hit very close to home for me. Even as a medical student, I really had to struggle to find a way to complete my OB-GYN rotation without violating my conscience (the pill is nearly a panacea in some physicians’ minds). It is difficult to be a practicing Catholic in today’s medical community. And that is another reason why we started the St. Basil Society: to strengthen soon-to-be docs who are under the gun.

How has Mother Teresa influenced your medical vocation?
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with the Missionaries of Charity in four different countries, and the sight of the white sari with blue lining always gives joy to my heart. My mother brought Mother Teresa to Dallas to set up a Missionary of Charity home there. Her radical yet simple and orthodox living of the Gospel — prayer centered on the Eucharist, service directed to the poor and rejected, virtue forged in poverty, purity and charity — can speak powerfully to the postmodern world. Mother Teresa’s consistent refrain to be cheerful, to show a smile, is a dictum to live by for those of us starting residency: "Keep on smiling in spite of everything; give Our Lord always all with a cheerful smile."

Barb Ernster writes from
Fridley, Minnesota.