April 21, 2017

Faith and medicine intertwine as a result of patient’s cancer diagnosis

By John Shaughnessy

Maureen McAteerThe discovery of a cancerous tumor—especially in a child—can be an unsettling moment for someone training to be a doctor.

For Maureen McAteer, it was also a moment of faith.

That moment of agony and faith occurred for McAteer during a pediatrics rotation at a hospital, part of her education as a member of the first class of the Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Indianapolis.

The parents of a 4-year-old girl had brought their daughter into the hospital, telling the staff that she had been having diarrhea. An examination of the girl then led to a round of X-rays, and the results of that testing showed a disturbing reality to McAteer and the doctor she was training with that day.

“The tumor was huge, and it looked devastating,” McAteer recalls. “I did the most praying I’ve ever done, hoping that the tests we put her through would lead to a diagnosis of one of the better case scenarios involving cancer. I was praying it was a more treatable and less aggressive type of cancer.”

This time, McAteer’s hope was also the reality for the girl.

“I was relieved, but we still had to tell her parents she had cancer, and she would have to go through years of treatment.”

As she and the primary doctor shared the news, McAteer watched the devastation sweep across the parents’ faces.

“Nothing is worse than telling parents that their child is sick or dying,” she says.

In the moments that followed, McAteer tried to comfort the couple. The conversation revealed that their family was of the Hindu faith. McAteer, a Catholic, told them she would pray for them and their daughter.

“Even though our religions are different, the fact that I told them I was praying for them made them thankful.”

For McAteer, who will graduate from medical school on May 7, it was another part of her education as a doctor—another part that showed her the role that faith and prayer can have in medicine.

“That was one of the harder experiences I’ve had,” she says. “I was so involved in the sharing of that diagnosis. I’m sure I’ll forever be learning those skills. I feel very much that every patient has taught me something—to become a better physician, a better caregiver.” †


Related story: First graduating class of Marian’s medical school seeks to touch the lives of others

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