‘Don’t check faith at door,’ health care workers told

By: By Jennifer Willems

Tough decisions, turning points and words of encouragement were shared by the keynote speakers at this year’s Diocesan Health Care Conference. The theme was “Personal Integration of Faith in Clinical Practice: Offering Hope and Perspective.”

Offering that hope and perspective were Dr. Diane Dunniway of Peoria, a clinical instructor for the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Nursing, Peoria Regional Program, and a practitioner and medical consultant for the Creighton Model FertilityCare System, and Dr. William Toffler, a professor and director of the education section of the Department of Family Medicine at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) in Portland, Ore. He is also co-founder and national director of Physicians for Compassionate Care Education Foundation.

Hosted by the Diocesan Health Care Committee under the auspices of the diocesan Office of Family Life, the conference drew 81 physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, technicians, chaplains and pastoral care workers to the Spalding Pastoral Center in Peoria on Oct. 19. In addition to networking and catching up with colleagues, participants had opportunities for prayer, reflection and discussion about issues raised during the presentations.

“In the past, we have really focused on Catholic health care in general, how it began,” said Msgr. Mark Merdian, chairman of the Diocesan Health Care Committee and episcopal vicar for health care for the Diocese of Peoria. “We’ve talked about beginning-of-life issues. We’ve talked about end-of-life issues. We’ve talked about spiritual healing.

“This year, what we wanted to concentrate on is the focus from a medical perspective about how your faith can inspire your medical practice,” he said. “We’re involved in a larger and broader mission. . . . The more we live our mission, the more God will bless our mission and make it effective.”

Learning that they could bring their Catholic faith with them to the office and not leave it at the door did not happen overnight for either Dr. Dunniway or Dr. Toffler. There was more than one turning point for each as they traveled to where they are now.

Some of those turning points have been very painful.

For Dr. Toffler, one of them came when he was doing an obstetrics and gynecology rotation during his third year of medical school. He observed a saline abortion and when the resident turned to him and said, “Bill, why don’t you do one?” he thought, “Why not? She’s going to have one anyway.”

“It was one of the most regrettable acts of my life,” Dr. Toffler told his listeners. “I didn’t tell anyone about it for 25 years.”

After medical school he prescribed contraceptives and inserted intrauterine devices and admitted, “I was troubled with what I was doing but not enough to change.” He got uncomfortable, though, when a young Catholic medical student asked what he thought about IUDs and again when a “savvy” pro-life worker pressed him for an answer to the question: “Do you refer for abortions?”

“I tried to support women who intended to get abortions with other options, such as adoption,” Dr. Toffler said. When one woman wouldn’t take no for an answer, however, he decided to ask his nurse to make the referral.

She refused.

“I had to admit, I agreed with her,” he said. “I went back into the examining room and told the woman I could not make the referral. Since then I have committed myself to never doing wrong or collaborating” in what he knows to be wrong.

He was fearful, though. He liked teaching and he liked his practice — would he have to quit his job?

Many “tests of faith” later Dr. Toffler still has his job, but said some of his colleagues perform abortions and noted that some of the studies for RU 486 or mifepristone, which is also called “the abortion pill,” were conducted at OHSU. In addition, the “culture of death” has a stronghold in the American Northwest, where assisted suicide is prevalent.

He encouraged the Catholic health care providers to remember that all life is inherently valuable, that no one has the right to do wrong, and that no one can serve two masters.

“I recognized my own conflict of interest,” Dr. Toffler said. “Get rid of one of your hats.”

He advised them to maintain their Catholic integrity: “Jesus must be at the center of your life at work, at home and at play.”

Dr. Dunniway, a nurse who got involved in women’s health, moved from prescribing IUDs to inserting them.

“I rationalized by thinking, ‘They’re already sexually active, they would get an abortion if I didn’t.’ By rationalizing, I could deny what I was doing,” she said. “But every time I went into the confessional I was confessing the same thing.”

When she was asked to be an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, she did not feel worthy. Her pastor assured her that God would present an alternative and she realized he had when she started hearing and reading about the Creighton Model of FertilityCare.

With the support of her husband, the approval from her collaborating physician and the example of good mentors, Dr. Dunniway has completed her training and currently has a natural family planning-only practice.

“You teach it, let them learn it and then let God do his miracles,” she said.

Dr. Dunniway also encouraged the health care providers to treat their patients as spiritual beings rather than a disease to be managed, if they don’t already. Not only does the church have an expectation that the well-being of the whole person will be considered, but it makes a difference to
the patient’s outcomes.

“Has anyone not seen the benefits of prayer,” she asked. “I doubt that anyone in this room could raise their hand. I believe the most powerful tool for good outcomes is prayer and care for their spiritual well-being.”

A good resource for health care providers is a spiritual director, Dr. Dunniway said, adding that spiritual reading, support groups and enrichment experiences like Cursillo can bear great fruit.

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