August 31, 2018

‘A wonderful providence’: Sister follows the twin desires of her heart to serve God and become a medical doctor

At 31, Providence Sister Arrianne Whittaker pursues the two powerful callings in her life—becoming a religious sister and becoming a medical doctor. (Submitted photo)

At 31, Providence Sister Arrianne Whittaker pursues the two powerful callings in her life—becoming a religious sister and becoming a medical doctor. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

The heartbreaking situation saddened Providence Sister Arrianne Whittaker, giving her a deeper perspective of trying to live her life as both a religious sister and a medical doctor.

Moments earlier, a patient had died quickly and unexpectedly in the hospital where Sister Arrianne was doing one of her medical rotations, as part of her training in the Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Indianapolis.

As the death settled in on the staff who had desperately worked to save the patient’s life, it became clear that someone was needed to be there for the patient’s family.

Sister Arrianne recalls, “One of the nurses, knowing I was a sister, asked if I would sit with the patient’s family until the chaplain arrived.”

As Sister Arrianne made her way to the family, she sensed the powerful connection between faith and medicine in her life—and how she hopes to use that combination to have an impact on the lives of other people.

“Let me be clear, I am no more qualified than any other person to companion my patients and their loved ones in a moment such as this.” she says. “And still the fact that this nurse recognized that there was something different about me unveiled for me the deep roots I have begun to grow into both these worlds—and how vital they are to each other.”

‘That year was a real game-changer’

It’s hard to quantify just how rare it is to pursue a life as a religious sister and a medical doctor. A search for statistics led to a 2018 ABC News story that stated there are about 300 priests and religious sisters who are doctors.

Sister Arrianne has also tried to determine how unusual her life journey is.

“I have met about five religious who are also physicians,” she says. “I know it has to be relatively rare, but for me it feels completely normal. And it is not that far of a stretch since sisters are involved in lots of various ministries these days.

“I guess I can say however that I am the only person I know of who has gone through this process of medical school while I am still in temporary profession.”

It’s a journey that has already been marked by twists and turns for the 31-year-old woman.

As the daughter of a pediatric nurse and a physician whose specialty is pathology, she had longed dreamed of becoming a doctor.

“I remember going to work with my dad when I was little and playing in the lab with the liquid nitrogen and sitting under his desk rummaging through his doctor bag,” she says with a smile.

Becoming a religious sister seemed far more of a stretch growing up. She says her three siblings would have voted her most likely to be the first to get married and start a family.

Yet after graduating from Marquette University in Milwaukee in 2009, she delayed plans to go to medical school to spend a year volunteering with the Providence Sisters at the then-St. Ann Medical and Dental Services Clinic in Terre Haute.

“That year was a real game-changer for me. It sort of turned my world upside down. I felt drawn to explore religious life on a much deeper level. Concurrently, I was feeling like I needed to take a step back from my dream of becoming a doctor. I felt I had to let it go.

“My year of living with the sisters really tore down my stereotypes of what nuns are, and religious communities are. I didn’t think I’d fit in. But I did fit in. I found people who challenged me and educated me.”

After a year in the clinic, she also gained an understanding of how she could change lives as a doctor.

“That year introduced me to a whole area of medicine I didn’t know. I didn’t have a lot of exposure to the poor and marginalized previously. It challenged me. It made poverty real. I got to feel compassion and empathy. It made me want to help the poor and indigent, especially in rural areas. It shifted how I could use medicine to help others.”

‘This is where I belong’

She entered the order in 2012, and she professed her first vows as a Providence sister in 2014. During that time, her faith also led her to a home for pursuing her born‑again dream of becoming a doctor.

She had been participating in spiritual direction at Marian in 2013, days before the university was about to greet its first-ever class of medical students—a time when the finishing touches on the medical school building still needed to be completed.

“One night after my spiritual direction, I walked over here,” she says as she sits in one of the study rooms of the medical school. “As I was walking out, I walked by the chapel and went in. The crucifix was on the ground. The walls were still dry wall. And there was one folding chair in the middle. I sat down and prayed. I had the sense that this is where I belong.”

That feeling has continued ever since she entered the program in 2015.

“The whole emphasis of osteopathic medicine on mind, body and spirit integrates into my life as a sister. It fits very well with how I want to be a person of healing. Looking at the body, mind and spirit allows me to see the holiness in each of my patients. I believe that God is a part of that person and that person’s life. Recognizing that holiness in them is a huge part of healing. You know your patient as a person instead of as a disease.”

She has just begun her fourth—and last—year in medical school. The years have been marked by challenges and constant support as she has tried to combine the dual parts of her life.

“It was tough at first. They’re two massive demands in my life. I’ve had to learn how to balance them. It’s the same for plenty of med students who struggle to find a balance in their personal and professional lives. Since entering medical school, my community [of sisters] has been incredibly supportive. That gives me life.”

So does her interactions with patients, fellow students and other care givers in the medical profession.

“There were days when I was so tired that I didn’t think I could pray. I encounter so many people in a day, and I guess my practice of prayer right now is to find the holy in each of those interactions. I see God in so many moments of my day.”

Her classmates see a reflection of Jesus in her.

A friend to count on

Classmate Ann Schmitt has told Sister Arrianne that when there are times when she’s thought Jesus has been quiet in her life, she’s found him in her.

“Medical school is very emotionally taxing,” says Schmitt, who is also a wife, a mother and a member of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg. “She and I lean on each other quite a bit. I’ve seen her lifting up a lot of other students as well. Even when she’s having a bad day, she’s there for the other students when they need somebody to talk to.”

Schmitt says that Sister Arrianne even turns to her fellow Providence sisters at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods to supply prayers for her classmates.

“I just took our boards that you have to pass to graduate medical school,” Schmitt says. “She had all the sisters praying for me. And then when I passed, I let them all know. They all sent me e-mails congratulating me and saying they were praying for my future.”

Classmate Jenny Biesiadecki offers another intriguing perspective. Once a Catholic, she has left the faith, so she thought it would be “awkward” when she accepted Sister Arrianne’s invitation earlier this year to visit Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

“I met people she’s become close to,” Biesiadecki says. “I had lunch with a whole bunch of sisters. They were very welcoming. I got to light a candle for my grandfather who passed away in early January and say a prayer. It was pretty cathartic actually.”

She pauses for a moment before adding, “Arrianne is very special to me. She’s the kind of friend who if I ever needed her to be there for me, she would be there with no judgment.”

‘A wonderful providence’

That combination of caring and connection is a double blessing for the path Sister Arrianne is following, says one of her mentors at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

“She’s come to see her primary identity as a Sister of Providence,” says Sister Dawn Tomaszewski, general superior of the Sisters of Providence. “And she’s been faithful to the desire of her heart to also be a doctor. Doctors really meet you when you’re most vulnerable. That’s when a person like Arrianne understands the importance of presence, that it’s being with people and helping them be faithful.

“I feel how she is as a Sister of Providence will make her a wonderful doctor. And her focus on the whole person and healing as a doctor will make her a better Sister of Providence. It’s a wonderful providence that this has come together in her life.”

Scheduled to graduate from medical school in May of 2019, Sister Arrianne hopes to gain a residency in family practice—moving her another step closer to her desire to serve the poor and marginalized in a rural setting. After her residency, her plan is to profess her final vows as a Providence sister.

Wherever the journey takes her, she wants to combine faith and healing.

“I want every one of my patients to feel that they matter to me, no matter who they are or where they have come from. I pray that in my actions and my words I can bear witness to the Gospel values of love, acceptance and compassion. That’s what God calls us to do.” †

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