Spirituality into medicine: Why ministry matters to Stritch applicants and students

By Zoë Fisher

The silver cross hung over the door in the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine classroom. Only a few of the ASPIRE (a program for undergrads applying to medical school) participants identified as Catholic; the others nervously questioned what going to a Jesuit institution was like if they had a different religion. Virginia McCarthy and Fr. David DeMarco, SJ, MD, from Campus Ministry explained how faith is woven into Stritch’s mission during a luncheon.

ASPIRE teaching assistant Zarna Patel emphasized how utilizing the resources in University Ministry will help her interact with different faiths better as a physician. “We help treat the human spirit,” McCarthy said.

The ASPIRE participants’ steady rush of anxiety was calmed by the serenity of the school’s atrium. It wasn’t uncommon to walk into Stritch and become enveloped in silence while the sun beamed down from the windowed ceiling. At times, it felt like a tranquil retreat instead of a preparation boot camp for medical school applicants.

Tala Akkawi, an undergraduate student at Loyola University Chicago and ASPIRE participant, assured others that the school didn’t make everyone attend mass or impose Catholicism. Instead, students and staff lived out the Jesuit principles and encouraged others to develop their personal faith, whatever it may be.

Akkawi, who’s a member of a Spanish Christian Learning Community at LUC, blends her faith with her desire to serve underrepresented communities. “ASPIRE taught me I don’t have to wait to become a doctor to work with underserved populations in health care. I can do that now,” she said.

As a Loyola undergraduate, common Jesuit phrases such as, “being a person for others,” “finding God in all things,” and “social justice” are phrases many aren’t familiar with. While the university focuses on students carrying out these missions in general, Stritch wants them to carry out their mission as physicians.

Every year, Stritch sponsors Ignatian Service Immersion trips to countries all over the world While on their trips, McCarthy encourages medical students to ask themselves, “Why do you want to do these things? What do you want to prepare for? Why do you find value in immersing yourself in another community?” and, most importantly, how this service translates to the rest of their life. Service immersions have a goal of teaching students to leave their comfort zone and go set the world on fire.

During the luncheon, ASPIRE teaching assistant and M2 John Olivieri learned the entanglement of faith and patient care at Stritch early on. While he was shadowing a hospital chaplain, the family asked him to pray over their grandfather and bless him with holy water. “Why would you ask me, you don’t even know me?” Olivieri asked the family. “But the fact that they knew I had their best interest at heart, it was powerful to be a part of that moment.”

“It was a very formative experience,” said teaching assistant Veronica Drozdowski about her chaplain shadowing experience. “Out of all the shadowing I did this semester, those two hours stand out the most. As a chaplain, you don’t walk in with an agenda.”

At a time where ASPIRE students are completing their medical school applications, John Hardt, Vice President of Mission Integration at Loyola University Health System and Associate Provost for the University’s Health Sciences Division, emphasized the importance of intentional self-reflection during a lecture. “This helps you become the person you want to be and aligning that with the person God wants you to be,” he said.

Hardt explained the tenants of an examen – a 10-minute reflection. “Put yourself in a position of gratitude, mentally, and think about your day as if you’re watching a film,” he said, “pay attention to people, places, feelings and words.”

McCarthy also had words of advice for the anxious students. “Trust your gut,” she said, “not head or heart, but the pit of your stomach.”

Akkawi said the Jesuit principal, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (For the greater glory of God), has comforted her during the application process. “If I can answer yes to the question ‘is what I’m doing for the greater glory of God?’ then I know I’m on the right path,” she said.

Spirituality and faith are some of the biggest cultural tenants for students and staff at Stritch. “I didn’t know I could incorporate spirituality into medicine until I came to Loyola,” Akkawi said.

During the third week of the ASPIRE program, 30 students, faculty, and staff gathered in a dimly lit prayer room for a vigil to remember the Orlando shooting. Student Life Coordinator Tomás Bolivar, reminded everyone that the victims were mostly from the Latino and LGBT community. There was a golden hue in the room as David DeMarco, SJ, MD, read the homily. A deep silence absorbed the room as staff members read the names, giving delicate consideration to the pronunciation.

As seen by the student experiences and opportunities available, Stritch’s spiritual support from faculty and staff is engrained in their mission. It spans to every community and faith at the school. They provide a place for reckoning and spiritual growth in order to make excellent physicians. Akkawi’s participation in the ASPIRE program confirmed her decision to apply to Stritch.

“All medical schools educate you on material, but Stritch will teach you how to implement that for the greater good,” said Akawi.