I never really saw myself as closed-minded about anything except for eating at chain restaurants. They’re overpriced, and local independent establishments offer fresher ingredients and more character, in my opinion.
But when I made the journey from the bustling DC suburbs to rural North Carolina for medical school, I realized I was indeed closed-minded about something else: Christianity.
Before medical school, I studied international relations and African studies in London and California. It wasn’t until I began working in an HIV/AIDS clinic that I had the “Aha!” moment most future physicians say they have. I then completed a post-bac in prehealth studies, worked as a medical assistant for a year, and applied to medical school.
In 2013, just days before classes started, I got the call. I learned that I would be attending the Campbell University Jerry M. Wallace School of Osteopathic Medicine in Buies Creek, North Carolina, a new school whose mission statement included teaching medicine in a Christian environment. Amid my elation, I also felt uncertain. How would I fit in at a Christian school? How would religion affect my education in the science of medicine?
The first year of medical school was so much harder than I could have ever imagined. And don’t let anyone tell you that the second year is easier. Sitting in class with 161 other highly qualified students, I felt so out of my element as our professor talked about the catecholamine synthesis and tyrosine catabolism pathway. I had just only come to the realization that anything that ended with -ase was an enzyme. I needed to quickly shift my muscle memory of the classroom from discussing political theory to speaking the language of pathophysiology, and I had a lot of catching up to do.
On top of all the schoolwork, I was dealing with the culture shock of moving to the South and an internal struggle of feeling like a complete outsider.
I come from a fairly diverse religious background. My mother is Jewish by heritage, my father is the son of a Methodist minister, and I was in a long-term relationship with a Senegalese Muslim. Yet, I have never been religious. My childhood household was completely secular. We celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah, mostly for the gifts and the excuse to cook matzo ball soup and lamb.
At CUSOM, I felt like I stuck out like a raven in a sky full of doves. Many locals—my future patients—in Harnett County, North Carolina, are Christian. So are many of my classmates. I was surrounded by members of a club that I wasn’t part of.
At our first-year orientation, our dean, John M. Kauffman Jr., DO, relayed his own definition of learning medicine in a Christian environment. To him, Campbell provides a learning space that encourages “everything that’s good about being Christian.” I thought to myself, “Well, isn’t that convenient? What about the bad aspects of Christianity? We’re just going to overlook them?”
When I visited him in his office to discuss this very concept, he pointed to a poster on his wall of the golden rule—you know, the Biblical statement that instructs people to treat others the way they want to be treated. The poster featured similar dictums from all the other major world religions, such as Islam and Buddhism, suggesting that the different faiths are more similar than people might assume.
Dr. Kauffman spoke about how the goodness of Christianity includes the “fruit of the spirit,” which the apostle Paul wrote about in his letter to the Galatians in the New Testament. These manifestations of a good Christian life include love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
A common goal
The profession of a doctor is one of servitude, Dr. Kauffman said. He spoke about caring for your fellow man (and woman!) and loving all others without judgment. I had another “Aha!” moment: I realized that our different worldviews overlapped much more than I initially had thought. Dr. Kauffman, a Christian, and I, an atheist, share a common life goal: to take care of others and put their needs first.
As physicians, we must be prepared to aptly tackle whatever comes up during our shift. Physicians should be ready to treat whoever walks, rolls or runs in with a deep level of compassion, Dr. Kauffman stressed.
I used to think being open-minded meant being especially sensitive toward alternative lifestyles, marginalized people, outsiders and the destitute. But now I understand that to be truly open-minded, I must expand upon that definition to include anyone different from me. One must approach each and every person from a place of empathy and acceptance.
Medical school is about gaining the knowledge and skills to care for your future patients in the most effective way possible. As a nonreligious student learning in a Christian environment, I’ve had the opportunity to pick up an extra skill I may not have otherwise gained. I have been taught the importance of incorporating faith into the care of religious patients. At CUSOM, students are instructed on how to delicately ask questions about spiritual health in our complete medical histories.
I will be let loose in the wards soon, in a community where many patients share the religious beliefs of my school’s founders. I am now able to better navigate personal questions about religion, whatever spiritual background my patient may have. This new awareness will allow me to better relate to and care for my patients.
Osteopathic physicians recognize the innate interconnectedness between mind, body and spirit. Although I have previously personally struggled to reconcile how religion and medicine can live harmoniously together, I understand that the holistic needs of the patient must direct the partnership between physician and patient. As a physician, I’m responsible for addressing my patient’s mind, body and spirit regardless of the doctrine we each individually follow.
All medical students spend significant amounts of time outside their comfort zone. We are grilled in the intensive care unit, we study harder than we ever thought we could, and we learn to carefully perform invasive, immodest exams. But as an atheist in a Christian school and community, I’ve spent a little more time outside my comfort zone than I expected. I hope all of my classmates also have the opportunity to work extensively with patients of different backgrounds from their own. The experience would be as good for them as my time here has been for me, I think.
Learning to stretch my view of the world has been a humbling experience. I’ve realized that life continually provides you with opportunities to self-reflect and grow your own worldview. You just have to be receptive to change and willing to tackle challenges head-on. To that end, I am meeting some friends at the Olive Garden tonight. Just kidding, I’m not ready for that yet. Instead, we’re heading to a new mom-and-pop pizza place down the street.