A Conversation with a Catholic Healthcare Professional

On Nov. 6-7, the Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, will be hosting their 16th Annual Divine Mercy Medicine, Bioethics, and Spirituality Conference. This year, for the first time ever, this conference will be entirely virtual. In this article, we interview Dr. Brian Burkey, M.D., M.Ed., F.A.C.S., Head & Neck Surgery and Oncology at the Cleveland Clinic. At the conference, Dr. Burkey will be giving a talk called, “Difficult Conversations: Delivering Bad News to Patients About Their Condition.”

What type of medicine do you practice? 
I’m a head and neck surgeon, trained as an ear, nose, and throat doctor. Since 1991, my practice has been entirely taking care of patients with head/neck tumors, which includes things like tongue cancer, voice-box cancer, tumors of the neck, etc. I have also spent 20 years performing microvascular reconstructive surgery, which is a very advanced form of reconstructive surgery. I’ve trained close to 40 fellows who practice this type of medicine around the world and in the United States. Evangelization is an essential part of our ministry now more than ever.

What inspired you to want to give a talk at a Catholic healthcare conference?

Well, I was raised Catholic, but a few years ago, I came to the realization that Catholic healthcare professionals need to be more outspoken about our values and faith. Otherwise, who else will? 

You’re giving a talk entitled, “Difficult Conversations: Delivering Bad News to Patients About Their Condition.” Was this talk based on your personal experience of giving bad news to patients?

Yes. I’ve been delivering difficult news to patients for so many years that I don’t have to think too much about how to go about it myself. But you can’t teach experience. So, I did some research on delivering bad news, and I’ve come up with a really good system that jived with what I have been doing, and I brought the religious and ethical principles of the Church in with it. I draw a good amount from a great document by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops called, “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services.” I also draw upon what we in the medical world call the “SPIKES” model, a six-step protocol for delivering bad news. 

Do you bring prayer into your practice when it comes to delicate issues like these? 

Well, I try to bring prayer into my life every day, and I hope and pray that God directs my practice. We make so many decisions as physicians — hundreds of decisions a day that really have big impacts on patients’ lives. It’s wrong to think that we can make all those decisions correctly with our own intuition. You don’t always know exactly what’s going on in a patient’s mind, so you have to rely upon a daily deposit of the Holy Spirit leading you in the right direction. You have to pray that you’re making good decisions and ask for God’s guidance. 

I always tell the residents (students) that in any operation we do, we make hundreds of decisions. If you make more than a couple of wrong decisions, things are not going to go well. But you can’t focus on that because you’d never start! So, you just have to hope that you’re going to get divine assistance. I’ve been blessed. People say, “Well, you’re a good surgeon,” and I think that’s true, but I also like to think that it’s because I rely on God’s grace.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing healthcare professionals like yourself? 

The biggest challenge is to develop a consistent prayer life. That’s the underpinning of all we do. It’s hard, because no one is really reminding you to do that. There are always people in medicine reminding you to close your charts, to do your billing, etc. but not a lot of people are saying, “Remember to pray.” So, the first challenge is creating time and developing that habit. We’re Catholics first and physicians second. When you start every day in prayer, it helps you remember that your practice is not unlike an apostolate to the people of God, to those He has entrusted to your care.  

You also need to share your faith with your patients. I don’t mean proselytizing or even verbally evangelizing them. But there are subtle ways to evangelize. Some people wear a cross or a Divine Mercy pin. I wear a Catholic Medical Association pin that sometimes generates questions. If you treat people like they are children of God, and not a customer, they sense that difference immediately. 

Once a patient asked me if his tumor was curable. Quoting a popular Catholic phrase, I told him, “I only know two things, there is a God and I’m not Him.” I told him that I didn’t know for sure, but that I was going to give him the best care I could. I make references to God like that often, and sometimes people pick up on it, and we end up talking about faith. I don’t push faith on people, but I leave the door open for them to respond. 


What other issues are important for healthcare professionals to speak up about today? 

The media and mainstream medicine have hijacked some issues away from the truth. Take premarital sex, for example. There are many medical dangers that arise as a result of non-monogamous relationships. These dangers, though, frequently go over-looked because of our culture's focus. There are also medical dangers when it comes to the use of contraception that not many want to talk about. Then there’s this movement in our culture to change gender into something that a rational physician could never agree to. So, we Catholics need to speak up. 

We need to remember that there’s a lot of good science behind what Catholics believe. Pope Benedict XVI always said that Catholics should not be scared of science. We have a God of reason. The more we seek truth, the closer we will get to God — not the other way around. The truth is, the Church’s teachings really do make sense and help lead to improved health, better relationships, and overall, they lead to peace and happiness. 

Conference registration can be completed online at TheDivineMercy.org/VirtualHealthcare or by calling 1-800-462-7426.

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