A new generation of physicians, molded by the Catholic faith to see Christ in their patients, is emerging from a secular medical school in Dallas.
|First-year student members of the St. Basil the Great Society in their white coats. Courtesy photo
“I try to have the perspective that when I’m dealing with a patient, I’m talking to a child of Jesus. And every time I see a patient, it becomes another encounter with God,” said Ashley Stone, 23, a second-year medical student at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
Stone, a lifelong Catholic and Dallas native, is the co-president of the St. Basil the Great Society, a Catholic student group at UT Southwestern that — in the four years since its founding — has become one of the campus’ most successful and popular student organizations.
About 40 people on average — including non-Catholics and even non-Christians — attend the society’s popular twice-monthly lunchtime lecture series, which has included notable speakers like philosopher Peter Kreeft discussing topics such as medical ethics, God’s existence, the Catholic perspective on contraception and natural family planning.
“Classmates have asked me what the deal is with Catholics and contraception,” Stone said. “When I explain it to them in detail, they’re blown away.”
More than 200 people — including UT Southwestern faculty members and Dallas-area physicians — have joined the group’s email list, which updates them on the society’s goings-on, which include social gatherings, community service projects, faith-formation activities and academic discussions.
In 2008, the St. Basil the Great Society was formed by a group of first-year Catholic UT Southwestern students who sensed a need to integrate the humanities and spirituality into their medical studies.
As their patron, the group adopted St. Basil the Great, the fourth-century bishop of Caesarea who is recognized as an influential theologian, a lover of the poor and underprivileged, and also founder of the world’s first public hospital for the poor.
“By invoking him as our patron, we wanted to emphasize the positive impact that Catholicism has had on health care, particularly for the poor,” said Dr. Thomas Heyne, a founding member of the St. Basil the Society who is now in residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
“Some people think we’re crazy, which is fine,” said Sally Dierschke, 23, a second-year medical student and co-president of the St. Basil the Great Society.
Dierschke told Our Sunday Visitor that while most medical students are respectful of her convictions, others give her and other devout Catholics “flak” for promoting Church teachings on life issues and contraception, as well as natural family planning, which is not taught at UT Southwestern.
“It’s frustrating that our school doesn’t teach us correct methods for NFP. That was why we got together on our own to learn about it, and then we promoted NFP in our talks,” said Dierschke, who is considering entering obstetrics and gynecology.
Stone, who is also leaning toward OB-GYN, also told OSV that promoting NFP in a field where contraception is unquestionably accepted is not easy, but having the support of like-minded Catholic medical students helps.
“Jesus never told us it would be easy, but I’m convinced this is the truth,” Stone said.
Dr. Thomas Heyne, 28, told OSV that many of the society’s other founding members had also been active in Catholic college student groups, and that they sensed an opportunity at UT Southwestern to introduce a Christ-centered perspective to the study of medicine.
“I think God gave us special graces for things to go well, and they did go very well, thanks be to God,” said Dr. Heyne, who graduated from UT Southwestern in June.
The St. Basil the Great Society’s academic forums have covered topics such as bioethics, science, theology, literature and history. The society’s members are also encouraged to volunteer their service to the local and global communities, including serving as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion and helping with the local Catholic Charities organization in Dallas. The society plans to sponsor an annual White Coat Mass, and opportunities for prayer and spiritual reading.
Many of the society’s members and alumni have volunteered in medical missions overseas. Dr. Heyne went overseas at least eight times during medical school to work in hospitals in clinics in Peru, Honduras, Uganda, Ethiopia, Mexico and India.
|St. Basil the Great. The Crosiers photo
“Mother Teresa’s call to serve the poorest of the poor and to do it with a cheerful smile has always deeply resonated with me,” said Dr. Heyne, the sixth of eight children born to devout Catholic parents who opened the Low Birth Weight Development Center in Dallas, which provides holistic care to a mostly immigrant and indigent population.
“I think the experience of what it means to live a Catholic life, to know someone who lives a life of faith in action, is extremely powerful,” Dr. Heyne said.
Stone has also studied and volunteered in foreign medical missions throughout most of Central America. She spent a month in Calcutta, India, volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Blessed Mother Teresa.
“Mother Teresa has been one of my heroes forever,” Stone said. “It was really inspiring seeing how they see Jesus in everyone.”
That approach leads Stone to look for Christ in her classmates and teachers, but it also instills a sense of mission to stand up for Catholic principles, especially on the issue of natural family planning.
“A group of students and I are working to get more education of NFP on our med school campus. We have several projects in mind, including changing the curriculum and building a scholarship fund for students to rotate with an NFP-only doctor,” Stone told OSV.
“Some people think you practice poor medicine because you won’t prescribe [contraception]. But we’ve received great feedback from supporting doctors, and our efforts seem very timely considering the HHS mandate,” Stone added.
The St. Basil the Great Society has organized on-campus discussions about the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate that all employer-provided health insurance plans completely cover all forms of FDA-approved forms of birth control, sterilization and abortion-inducing emergency “contraceptives.”
“I’m frustrated that the government is telling us that we as women can’t be successful unless we have contraception, and that we can’t have the lives that we want otherwise,” said Dierschke, who added that the Catholic faith shapes her entire outlook on practicing medicine.
“I approach it with the mindset of, ‘How can I be like Jesus?’ When I see a patient, that’s not just a patient. That’s Christ in disguise and I can be Christ for that person,” said Dierschke, who was also active in a Catholic student group at Texas Tech University.
“It’s great to have a community to back you up and encourage you to keep going and keep the faith when things are hard. The people I’ve met in medical school are some of the most dedicated Catholics I’ve ever met. It’s just great to be around people who exude holiness,” Dierschke said.
In addition to academic lectures and community service projects, the St. Basil the Great Society’s members also regularly meet for a theology reading group. Several members attend daily Mass and pray the Rosary together, go on retreats and get together to socialize and enjoy each other’s company.
The St. Basil the Great Society’s overarching goal is to engage the wider UT Southwestern community, evangelizing it with the Gospel.
“We try to bring Christ to the secular campus, and I think we’ve done that,” Dierschke said.
Brian Fraga writes from El Paso, Texas.