"Medicine & Ministry is a Marriage"
Updated: May 27, 2020
Dr. Josephine Fowler is a family physician at the University of Massachusetts, Hahnemann Family Health Center. She is the Vice Chair of clinical services for the department of family medicine. She has a strong but gentle presence. She shares a story about personal loss, family, faith and a call to serve.
Just like many family physicians, Dr. Fowler is a professional with many hats. Some of her proudest attributions to her workplace is as a teacher.
“My job is 60% clinical and 40% administrative. In my clinical role I get to interact with learners that are medical students and residents…Precepting is when resident physicians go to see patients and then they come back to talk to the attending about any additional information they need to care for their patients…I enjoy that…It’s a part of my job that I’ve enjoyed for years. In the hospital, I work on labor and delivery…again, doing something very similar – precepting for deliveries and talking to them about their patients and rounding with them in the hospital…it’s a big part of what I see in academic medicine.”
“In my new role…I came in October and started November 2019…I’ve lived in Boston before – and my son and his wife and granddaughter are in Quincy. And I just felt it was time to come back, something would come up and I would end up staying in Texas. The time just came…I just felt like it was the right time. And because I listened to that drawing to come back, I got here just before the Pandemic started. It’s like I always knew something was happening…and I’ve been praying about being close to family. They’re all on the east coast, I was the only one down in Texas. My son is in Massachusetts and my daughter is in New York.”
“It’s been good that I can move closer and be near them, but it’s been hard that I can’t even see them…we’re all on shutdown. We do facetime and zoom, but it’s not the same. We are letter writers, and yesterday I got a letter from them, and it was exciting…My son and his wife live in Quincy but I can’t see them either because everyone is on precautions due to COVID. I work in a clinic and a hospital, I don’t want to take anything to my family…we are limited to telephone, or zoom, or sometimes video on my telephone. My sisters and brothers are in New Jersey and New York.”
During the COVID pandemic, Dr. Fowler suffered two personal losses – a brother and then, 10 days later, a sister. Both from COVID19. Yet, Dr. Fowler continues to come to work – she continues to serve her patients and continues to be the source of comfort for her family.
“It’s painful but I don’t want them (my family) to sit home and be sad. My two siblings that passed away (from COVID19) were Christians, and so we do have a conversation about what that means… we don’t want to have to see any family members go. But to me, the hardest part is not knowing what their destiny is. Not knowing what their relationship is. So we had to have that conversation. My family – there are people who are Muslim, there are people who are Jewish, there are a lot of different faiths. So we’ve learned to get along – we don’t talk about religion much, but we know who you are…We’ve learned over the years who we are…we are a family, so you have to tolerate people…that’s what Christianity is about…a lot of times it’s just about having a normal conversation with people about their life and how you portray things, and how you share.”
“It doesn’t mean I don’t cry…it doesn’t mean I don’t feel pain, but I know that I have help. Sometimes help from people, and sometimes from God…In His words I find comfort. And those are things that have helped me get through. A year ago, I also lost a sister and a great niece within 6 weeks of each other. She has two daughters that are left and I was helping her daughter 2 days ago and she is just starting to get things together. And we were talking about coronavirus and losing more family members…they’re willing to listen to me about faith even though they may not have the same faith. They just wanna listen to me because I talk to them and I listen.”
-WHY SHE KEEPS SHOWING UP TO WORK-
Why did we keep thanking frontline workers during the COVID19 pandemic? Was it simply because they were putting their lives at risk? Was it because they were saving lives? Yes – but even moreso, we thank them because they kept showing up to work. No matter what the personal burdens they carried were, no matter how much longer the work hours were – they kept showing up.
“Working in the hospital, I always feel like…helping other people to stay calm in the storm helps me to stay calm in the storm. And so coming to work is another opportunity for me to give to someone else and in giving, I receive comfort in knowing I’ve helped someone else. There’s been people I’ve talked to who are patients who are worried they have coronavirus and I can tell my story, and it helps them…It’s good to come to work, despite everything that’s happening.”
“I’m a doctor but I’m also an elder in my church. I’m also in ministry. And I just remember in my training I was told that ministry comes first. What that means is that ministry can be in your house, it can be in your church, it can be with your neighbor, but it always comes first. The other person comes first. As a ministry and a physician we are servant leaders. So it’s not about us anymore. It’s about other people, and that’s important to me. I feel better when I’m helping other people because it makes me feel better about what I’m going through. It doesn’t mean that we don’t go through things as doctors and as leaders and ministers…no matter what God called you to do because you have been allowed to go to that place, he’s calling you to not serve yourself but those people He has put under you or around you to serve. Sometimes we are serving people even above us. But you have been put in that position to serve other people and that’s how I feel about it.”
“In 2012, I thought about going to ministry school – I’ve thought about it for years, I’ve thought about it since I was a teenager…I ended up applying and going to ministry school there (Texas). I served for a while and then in 2015, I was visiting Boston again and I started applying all over Boston. And I had a dream that I was looking across a bridge and there was a clergy in a white collar and I told my friend…and I hadn’t even thought about going to eldership at all. About two days later, I got a call. And I had another dream too where I was in a car, moving – and the car’s black, the other car comes to meet me head-on and they’re on the wrong side of the road. It’s early in the morning and I’ve got my stuff packed. I’m leaving Texas. And the car stopped – and instead of being afraid, I got out of the car and they said (I couldn’t see their faces) this is Elder Siegler and Elder Dobbins and they are prophetic and I just interpreted that as “Don’t rush, God knows what He has in store for you.” And so it was two days later I heard that they wanted me to be an elder in the church – it’s another two years. And so, that’s how I ended up staying there two more years…Church is important but it’s the relationship with God…and I felt like I learned there.”
---FINDING A PLACE YOU BELONG---
Most, if not all, of us in this life are searching for, finding and re-searching for a place of belonging. Dr. Fowler’s story took her from the east coast, to Texas and now back to Massachusetts. She shares with us the story of how she found a community and place of belonging while she was away from all of her family during her years of service in Texas.
“I enjoyed my church in Texas – I visited different places for about a year because I didn’t want to be a groupie, and so I went to other churches and then on Valentine’s Day 2007 – I was working 12-14 hours a day around that time and no one in my family could come (normally on holidays I spend it with my family). So I go to church, and he’s doing a sermon but he’s acting the sermon out. It’s called "reposition yourself" – reposition your mind, your thoughts, the way you think about things. And church was packed – it’s always packed. There were no seats, there were no chairs against the wall, nowhere to sit. And so one of the ushers…gets out of his seat and he let me sit there and in less than five minutes he asks me to come sit in the front row cuz he found a seat for me. My heart melted…my heart literally melted…and it’s almost like I heard the Lord say “Happy Valentine’s Day” …I felt so loved. I stayed that time…I just felt like, this is my home.”
“I think that my relationship with God grew while I was there, and a part of that was because of the people…the people are so loving – you think that at a large church you don’t make that connection, but it’s like one big hug…it’s like having family there.”
Dr. Fowler speaks about the importance of prayer to her. For she does not pray for just herself, her family, her friends and her patients – she prays for those who ask her to.
“The Intercessors are people who pray all the time. We would just meet and pray for our nation, our country…we get people all over the world asking for prayer requests, and especially since COVID started, there are people who lost their families, a bunch of bishops died this year…and most recently, just this week, I got someone to pray for from Massachusetts…It’s nice to pray for people from everywhere, I really enjoy it.”
---FAITH AND PATIENT CARE---
While faith and spirituality can be such a strong part of one’s identity, it is a sensitive area that few physicians frequently divulge about themselves and inquire of their patients. It is not a routine part of our checklist to diagnose a patient’s ailments. Yet, Dr. Fowler through her years of experience has found a comfortable balance in her practice – both as a physician and a minister.
“We take care of people from all different faiths, and people who don’t have faith at all. Actually, in taking care of the patient as a physician, I don’t want to push across that barrier. It’s very clear to me that when I deliver care, that I have to be sensitive to what the other person wants but I also have to be sensitive to the fact that I am here to serve everybody. So I don’t consider myself one of those doctors that push people away because of my faith, but I want to draw them…it’s not me who draws them…When there’s an opportunity to console a patient because of a family death, He gives that opportunity for me to say how I feel about things and ask them how they feel about it. And if I initiate the conversation, I always ask them if it’s okay if I talk to them in that manner. For me, the patients get to know you through continuity in family medicine. So once they get to know you…even people who don’t believe…they still want you to pray for them when something’s going on.”
“This is who I am … probably at most stages of my life, but this stage of my life especially…I don’t have to hide it. I do a lot of global health, and I enjoy that…helping people from all around the world. I’ve been to so many countries, and it’s just exciting to not only share medicine but to share the Gospel. I’ve always felt like for me medicine and ministry is a marriage – because it’s the whole mind, body and spirit. So you can share all of that with your patients, and most patients welcome that, when you get to know them. I’ve had patients who come pretending they have chest pain just to get a prayer.”
-WHAT MAKES A LEADER-
“I recently just read a post about what it means to be a leader…and a leader is really someone called to serve - it’s not someone who’s perfect or has just been given a task – but the only reason you’re able to lead is because most of us have already been through what we’re going to do. Because cyou don’t get there just by rite of passage, but you get there because you’ve already conquered something and you need to share that with someone else.”
Josephine Fowler, MD
University of Massachusetts
Department of Family Medicine & Community Health
Vice-Chair of Clinical Services
Hahnemann Family Health Center
Photographers: A. Giang, H. Del Rosario