Photo: Felix Carroll
"With the message of Divine Mercy," says Dr. Scot Bateman, "Christ gives Himself to us and asks that we give ourselves to others." In Dr. Bateman's work treating critically ill children, he heeds that call.
Redefining the Term 'Good Doctor'
How to Be a Merciful Presence for Critically Ill Children
Dr. Scot Bateman walks down a hallway lined with doors. Through some of the doors children are recovering. Through others, children are dying.
Family members, looking worn and rattled, can be seen at bedsides. Through the pressure of illness and the heat of emotion, it's as if their whole worlds have condensed and crystallized to the size of a hospital room. This is their encampment. For some, this is their nightmare.
At the nurses' station, a medical team talks in hushed tones while examining an X-ray. In the hallway, everyone — even the maintenance staff — walks as if on padded paws, as if in a sacred space. Which they are.
I follow Dr. Bateman through a door, then through another door, then down a hallway and into his office. We sit down. He looks at me, waiting for my reaction after a tour of the UMass Memorial Children's Medical Center's Pediatric Critical Care Unit, for which he serves as chief.
My reaction is that I want to curl up into a ball and sob. He's not surprised.
A big window overlooks the city streets of Worcester, Mass. In comparison to sick children, everything below seems trifling, or not really real.
"I don't know how you do this for a living," I say to him.
He smiles — a half smile, really. "I tried to talk myself out of it many times, and I can't," he says.
Dr. Bateman, a convert to Catholicism three years ago, is a member of Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy, which may explain a lot. He draws his strength from his faith. He encourages his patients to do likewise, whatever their religion may be.
"Spirituality is an essential component in the pediatric critical care unit," he says. "For the patients, for the parents and for the medical staff, too, unless you have a way of dealing with suffering, you can't be here."
Times are Changing
Ten years ago, it was rare for a healthcare professional such as him — particularly in a state-run hospital — to advocate the importance of spirituality. But times are changing, in large part due to the expectations of patients.
A 1999 study in Archives of Internal Medicine, a journal published by the American Medical Association, reported that 90 percent of patients surveyed believed prayer may sometimes influence recovery, and 94 percent agreed or strongly agreed that physicians should ask whether they have religious beliefs if they become gravely ill.
In the realm of pediatric intensive care itself, a Harvard University study published in the September issue of Pediatrics, the main publication of the American Academy of Pediatrics, indicated that among the top priorities for most parents with children in critical care units were: prayer, faith, access to and care from clergy, and belief in the transcendent quality of the parent-child relationship that endures beyond death.
More than half of the 125 American medical schools now offer courses on religion and on the connections of spirituality and health. Many leading medical societies sponsor conferences on the theme. Several academic medical centers — with funding from such sources as the National Institutes of Health — boast research divisions devoted to studying the potential connections between medical and spiritual interventions.
"Healthcare professionals now understand that not only is it OK to draw upon their faith, but that they should be doing so," says Marie Romagnano, RN, from Charlton, Mass., the founder of Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception.
Marie's annual conference earlier this month at Holy Cross College in Worcester drew several hundred healthcare professionals, including Dr. Bateman, who was a speaker.
A Question That Redefined Everything
Dr. Batemen's own faith has grown incrementally — and unexpectedly — through his work treating sick children.
He knew he wanted to be a doctor. He knew he wanted to help people. But he didn't consider the role of God in his life and in his work until one day in 1998, while he served as a second-year resident at Children's Hospital in Boston.
He was making his rounds. He was at the bedside of a terminally ill 11-year-old girl. She had T cell lymphoma. She was admitted as a last-ditch effort. Every day, he'd tell her a joke (such as "Why do gorillas have big nostrils? Because they have big fingers.") He recalls her laughter. It was hearty, genuine and infectious. She imbued innocence. She radiated trust and hope, even as her body became ravaged with tumors.
She asked him through knowing tears, "It's not good, is it?"
"No, it's not," he responded.
She contemplated that answer, then she suddenly asked, "Scot, what is it going to feel like when I die?"
That question stretched beyond his preconceived notions of doctoring. No one taught him how to answer that in medical school.
He recalls thinking how words such as "You can fight" or "Be strong" or "Hold on" came to mind, but rang hollow. She demanded honesty. She knew she was dying.
"I think you will probably feel like you are falling deeper and deeper asleep," he told her, his voice quivering. "You will find it harder and harder to wake up and see all of us here. But finally you won't be able to wake up. Instead, you will be in your dreams from then on."
The words hung in the air. She stared at him. Then, she finally said, "I like my dreams." She started crying uncontrollably, but with a sense of relief and peace — not fear.
"And I see just grace," he says, describing this child who would soon die.
In her last remaining days, she slipped in and out of consciousness. She said goodbye to family and friends. Wearily, she would ask Dr. Bateman for a joke. He would oblige. At one point she motioned for him to come closer. She whispered, "Scot, you are going to be a great doctor."
In the Trenches
This 11-year-old girl altered and expanded forever what Dr. Bateman calls his once "feeble" definition of a good doctor. Being a good doctor, he now says, means being a merciful presence at the bedside of the sick and dying.
Day to day, Dr. Bateman and his staff work in the trenches, ministering — medically and spiritually — families undergoing what he calls "the worst nightmare of their lives."
They witness anger and fear and extreme stress. They hear yelling, screaming, crying. They also hear laughter, and they often witness something beautiful: "We see people at their best, even when circumstances are at their worst," says Dr. Bateman.
They are witnesses to love — the unconditional kind. The kind that's both intimate and universal, that connects with a Higher Power. The kind that points to God.
The Pediatric Critical Care Unit at UMass Memorial treats more than 700 patients annually, from newborns to 18-year-olds. The staff feels free to ask families if they need a member of the clergy. They are careful to give patients and their families quiet space for prayer and family bonding.
They also, at times, breakdown in tears themselves. How could they not? Children represent their parents' hopes and dreams. And sometimes hopes and dreams shatter.
As for tears shed for suffering children, Christ Himself sheds them, too. At one point in her Diary, St. Faustina implores Jesus to look upon the tears of suffering little children. She writes: "At that moment, I saw the Lord Jesus, His eyes filled with tears, and He said to me, You see, My daughter, what great compassion I have for them. Know that it is they who uphold the world (286).
"If the sight of suffering children didn't affect us," says Dr. Bateman, "We'd be in the wrong field. As soon as it gets easier, I'm in the wrong field."
Two children died in the unit in the week prior to my visit, on May 11. Emotional burnout stands as the great job hazard. But there's a flip side: the joy of seeing kids get better.
"It fuels hope," says Dr. Bateman, "which is essential to working here."
Seeing Christ's Image
Dr. Bateman, 40, a father of two children, says he has learned from the message of The Divine Mercy how much Christ loves us and wants us to trust in Him and to love others as He loves us.
"Being able to be an instrument of mercy for meek children and their families — I view that as a privilege," Dr. Bateman says.
A privilege because in a sick child — in their meekness, their dignity, their love, their trust, their suffering — he sees Christ's image. "It's like when you look at the crucifix," he says. "You see both pain and beauty. If you don't see both, you're not getting it. Appreciating both as real is what opens up the sense of the divine."
He does this work because, he says, a sick child deserves everything — the best medical care and the best spiritual care. He does this because every child has an undying, beautiful spirit, and that spirit is a source of strength.
The famous medical missionary, Dr. Ted Kuhn, once said, "Years ago I was challenged to ask God to break my heart with the things that break His heart."
It's one of Dr. Bateman's favorite quotes.
He still remembers that 11-year-old girl. To this day, her memory can make his eyes well up. But her memory, he says, also "enlivens each day with hope, giving me the courage to smile."
Let us pray for you. Send your prayer petitions to our Divine Mercy Intercessory Prayer Ministry. They will be placed before the Blessed Sacrament in Our Lady of Mercy Oratory.