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Betsy Kneepkens: Son’s vocation as a doctor is something they ‘can’t take away’

It was a gorgeous spring day, I think the third one of this season. This day was in the making for 13 years. My eighth-grader participated in a competitive history day project at Holy Rosary School with his best buddy. The project studied three innovative scientists who developed cardiac stents. 

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

To learn the history, middle-schoolers had to understand the science behind the invention. I was impressed by the number of local healthcare providers willing to give their time and talent to mentor these two middle schoolers. Unknowingly, these professionals had a significant impact on these boys’ lives, ultimately shaping their future. 

Crowded into a large, poorly air-conditioned auditorium, we received the privilege of watching our son receive a doctorate in medicine. There is not a doctor or a professional scientist on either side of the family. Unequivocally, his vocation was formed out of the care, kindness, and leadership of a group of individuals that gave of themselves. I am grateful for these adults who intentionally or unintentionally impacted these young kids with their unselfishness. We all have a role and responsibility toward the next generation, and how we handle that obligation certainly can affect a child for the remainder of their lives. Sadly, misusing this same “power” presents a risk of negatively impacting the direction of a young person as well. 

Once my son received his diploma, I was caught off guard by my reaction. Although my tears were to be expected, my comment was not. I said to the person next to me, “Now, nobody can take this away from him!” 

Several thoughts came to my mind as I reflected on what I said. At first, I thought maybe my response was because our son’s long journey was independent of anything his parents did, or the endless doubters that expressed their opinion over time, or because we thought his arduous and methodical plan was unrealistic. 

In turn, maybe my reaction was because once my son started studying for the MCAT, he repeatedly heard from older adults that being a doctor was a poor professional choice, including those who were current doctors. As a med student, he listened to a litany of individuals share negative comments about the health care system, how he will have to do more paperwork than treat patients, or his profession demands ever-increasing patient loads without the additional time or compensation to get the job done rightly. My son heard, contemplated those opinions, factored in these professional hurdles, and pushed forward anyway. 

I have had time to contemplate, and I believe I know why my “post-diploma” comment was made. The source of my statement came from what I heard at this nearly two-hour commencement ceremony. In this day and age, a child raised Catholic and who remains faithful has to overcome substantial obstacles others do not. Many professions demand workers subscribe to the “it’s our way or the highway” mentality. As I have written about before, the highway these days is directed away from Christ and his church. With that said, I subscribe to and believe you move on if you cannot make decisions that have the potential to put your soul in jeopardy. 

Well, the move-on mentality may have been easier for my generation. Our culture used to respect the free exercising of your religious beliefs. You simply were respected. It was understood you did not proselytize or require others to subscribe to your faith, you simply lived your faith. For instance, I once worked for a men’s clothing store, and they decided to open on Sundays. The owner was not a Christian, so he asked if working on Sunday would conflict with my faith before he scheduled me to work on Sunday. He respected my decision and made plans accordingly. I don’t believe this would happen today. 

My son’s two-hour commencement ceremony was one mentor after another repeating the same message in different ways. The keynote speaker shared the same content too but much more blatant and with confidence that everyone in the room thought as he did. I heard a call for this generation of doctors to follow a particular narrative that frankly had little to do with patients’ actual care and healing and more with a political leaning. I was hoping these mentors would have insisted on a continued pursuit to eradicate diseases and illness, seek to advance the science, fix broken limbs, and treat every person with dignity and respect while ignoring the attributes a patient cannot control. 

I was hoping I would hear that a medical doctor would always will the good of another while being patient, listening, and sharing the truth with compassion. I wanted just one speaker to proclaim “do no harm”: a statement implied in the Hippocratic Oath that all doctors used to pledge to. Moreover, I wished that these healthcare leaders would have told my son and all those new doctors that practicing medicine is a privilege. As doctors, they will be called to serve, even if that means refusing to perform procedures that are against science and are unethical, meaning you may not be popular. Lastly, I wish he heard that being a doctor means that the benefits of being a physician can never be more significant than what you do for the sake of the ill, injured, or despondent. 

My husband and I were intentional about the way we tried to form our children. If the expectations laid out at his graduation are indeed the way he is supposed to doctor, his scope of practicing will be limited. I am humbled that my son takes his faith seriously, and I am equally humbled that he has sought out the practice of medicine. I strongly believe Christ gave us the clergy to be physicians for our soul and doctors to be and physicians for our body. In other words, both vocations are intertwined serving our body-soul composite. 

It was my heart that articulated “now nobody can take this away from him” because the road in front of my Catholic physician son will be difficult. And when the time comes that he has to stand in front of the institution of health care that seems to be leaning more and more away from Christ, I pray he stands for what he believes. 

If standing firm on his faith means he will be forced to “move on,” no health care institution can take away the degree that conferred his vocation to heal. I hope he knows from his parents the greater good will always be that he served Christ first. 

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage, Family, and Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.