Doctors (and Nurses, and All Health Professionals)' Mom

February 16, 2022

Bishop William Joensen

Long-time Des Moines physician and St. Ambrose Cathedral parishioner Dr. Richard Deming was honored rec

dicine. His own endearing humanity is evident in every clinical encounter; former patient and retired priest Father John Bertogli spoke of how Dr. Deming accompanied him through his bout with cancer, respecting his human dignity every step of the way. Father John observed, “Your medical expertise, compassionate spirit, and sense of humor are gifts only God can give.”


ently when MercyOne Medical Center dedicated its new Cancer Center in his name.  Dr. Deming never expected this state-of-the-art locus of cancer treatment and holistic care to be named after him while is living, let alone still practicing me

Dr. Richard Deming

Dr. Deming attributes his dignifying approach to the practice of medicine in large measure

to the rather inhumane treatment his own mother Odetta suffered when she was diagnosed with lung cancer in the 1970s.  The care she did not receive in her ordeal spurs him to make amends on behalf of the medical community; he is cited as saying, “I know now that what I have become is in part because of her invisible, steady hand on my back, guiding me to where I am today.” 

Though deceased, Dr. Deming’s mother remains a mediator accompanying her son. More than any white coat with his name stitched on it, the mantle of medical and human wisdom that he wears was purchased in part by her suffering, and is sustained by the bond between them through which she mediates good counsel, healing, unflagging hope, and grace to his patients.

I write this on the heels of our Church’s commemoration of the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, which is also celebrated annually as the World Day of the Sick.  In 1858, the Blessed Mother revealed to St. Bernadette both that she is the Immaculate Conception and pointed to the living springs of water flowing through this sacred site.  The waters of Lourdes bring spiritual cleansing, sometime miraculous healing, revived faith and trust in God, and deepened connection among all God’s children on our pilgrimage to eternal life. 

Holy Mary assures us that the incursions of sickness and disease and the attending temptation to felt isolation and despair will not prevail.  In his most recent World Day of the Sick message, Pope Francis draws from Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas to describe this dynamic: “Pain isolates in an absolute way, and absolute isolation gives rise to the need to appeal to the other, to call out to the other.”  The Holy Father elaborates upon the malignant fears and uncertainties that can ensue, where patients question whether life has any meaning at all. 

In this crucible of illness, how vital is the vocation of all health care professionals.  The pontiff recalls how many people during the pandemic spent the “last part of their earthly life in solitude, in an intensive care unit, assisted by generous healthcare workers, yet far from their loved ones.”  How much more cherished are those witnesses to God’s presence and charity, who in the spirit of Jesus and his Mother, pour out mercy and hope upon wounded souls.

While we cannot know fully the cost to doctors, nurses, and all allied health care professionals, we have some sense of the exhausting demands and corollary temptations they face that impinge upon their own act of profession.  We are awed by their remarkable courage, stamina, and transparency in acknowledging their own weakness and vulnerability.  We are profoundly grateful for their sacrifices, their commitment to their mission to heal as much as possible, but always to care.  As members of the faithful, we frequently pray for them to God, that they might know they are not left to their own devices; they, too, have a mother who “has their back,” who watches over them, offering guidance and encouragement: Blessed Mary, the Mother of Jesus.  And as we accompany one another through trials and triumphs, life and death, we compose another spiritual mother who mediates life, healing, and hope: Mother Church.   

As grueling as the pandemic has been for medical teams, for families and society at large, there is another serious challenge looming that impinges upon the healthcare mission of the Church that began when Jesus first walked the earth.  The mighty acts and tender mercies that flowed from the hands and heart of Christ when he began his public ministry have been sustained by the apostles and their successors, by those who practice the healing arts, including historic communities of religious women and men whose vocations were dedicated to the charism of treatment and care, all the way to present-day lay professionals.  Faithful physicians and their colleagues believe that the inherent, God-given dignity of the human person entails guiding principles, opportunities, and limits about what they should and should not do as they practice their scientifically-grounded art.

Supreme Knight of Columbus Patrick Kelly recently spoke to a number of us bishops about the looming new federal rule that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has signaled will be issued this coming April.  This rule will effectively disregard the existing Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and will dismiss the conscience rights of health care professionals to refuse to perform certain objectionable procedures with the threat of costly penalties and sanctions for them and their sponsoring Catholic institutions. This prospective rule will negatively impact the religious freedoms and mission of Catholic healthcare providers who presently serve over 15% of patients in this country. 

Provisions of the pending HHS rule include: (1) reimplementation of mandates for hospitals and insurance plans to include coverage for/performance of contraception, abortion-causing drugs, and sterilization; (2) addition of mandates to cover/perform surgical abortion and a wide range of gender transition affirming procedures; (3) mandates to cover/perform fertility services that do not respect our God-given natures and that assert human technological mastery over the inherent goods of marriage, natural conception, and the rights of children. 

This rule speaks to the intent of the administration to remake not only healthcare and the divinely-appointed mission of Catholic health providers, but our very humanity, according to their own image of what we should do and not do in the sacred space of our clinics and hospitals. It will constitute an overreach of massive proportion that violates the vocations and consciences of dedicated women and men to serve and lay down their lives for their sisters and brothers in accord with God’s will and dominion over life and death.  It is a naked assault and attempt to “cancel” persons of faith and the Church herself from the healthcare arena.

Surely, the Church will support various forms of legal recourse against this unjust rule.  We will definitely support, pray for, and call all Catholics and persons of good will to respect and abide by the guiding norms and goods that reason and faith illuminate, especially those on the front lines delivering medical care and the administrators and staff who stand by them.  We are to keep calm heads and hearts, be of good humor, and trust ever more deeply that God’s providential care and the resources of the Spirit can be mobilized for exactly this sort of challenge, should we humble ourselves, and call upon our Lord and his Blessed Mother. 

Mary may not be a “tiger mom” in the conventional sense, but she has a special place in her heart for those who have committed themselves to nurture life, to accompany and heal as God allows, and to stand firm as witnesses against those who would try to suppress faith and sever us from one another.  She is the “mom” for all persons in healthcare who respond to the promptings of grace, and will enlighten and strengthen them as we ask her to intercede on their behalf.  With such a mom, the gates of the netherworld will not prevail against her Son’s Body, which is all of us who place ourselves under her mantle of wisdom and protection.