Conversion stories have always been considered the realm of RCIA—how did someone come to yearn to “come home” to Rome? What person, what circumstances led him or her to realize what was missing in life?
This conversion story is different—it’s that of a cradle Catholic (with 12 years of Baltimore Franciscan education) who finally found the Truth about the Church in my vocation of medicine.
It was Fall 1995—married for five years, mother of two young sons, in my first years of part-time family medicine practice in a small town in south central Pennsylvania, attending Eucharistic adoration, member of the prolife committee at our parish. What needs conversion here, you may ask?
The answer I didn’t want to hear came from an insert in our parish bulletin from Priests for Life, asking prayer for doctors who prescribed birth control pills which could cause an abortion. That’s a hard one to read and stay seated quietly in the pew! I firmly believed I was already on the right side of this issue—I’ve been against abortion as long as I could remember. Why did I need prayers?
The next meeting of the prolife committee was interesting. I was assured that I was still welcome—of course, doctors had to prescribe the Pill and this was just the pastor’s personal opinion, not that of the parish. Somehow I didn’t feel better.
October 1995 was Pope John Paul II’s visit to Baltimore. We saw the Holy Father along the parade route while in town for a wedding. Imagine my chagrin at seeing a sign, “Holy Father, we are entirely in agreement with your faithful teachings.” I felt under attack. What to do now?
I really liked our pastor, and wanted to educate him on how he had to be wrong. My journey found me driving to the nearest med center library to pull and photocopy journal articles (days before the internet!) I became convinced that there WAS a chance that the Pill could cause an early abortion. But who practiced this way—not prescribing the Pill?
God was as persistent as I was stubborn in acknowledging His plan. In our driveway landed a sample copy of a local newspaper. I opened it to see an ad for an obstetrician opening up a NFP only medical practice nearby. Really. I was becoming paranoid about being pursued like this.
During this time, my husband and I were led to use NFP in our own marriage after hearing a talk by our same pastor during a marriage prep session where we volunteered—how to give God room to move in a marriage.
Much prayer followed. Finally, with fingers shaking, I called my parish to make an appointment with the pastor to discuss this and make my Confession. I shared the struggles over the prior six months—the library research, the prayer, and finally the conclusion that I had to stop prescribing the Pill despite my fears for my future in medicine. He was really kind, and apologetic that I had struggled so long alone. I was referred to a diocesan priest-theologian with a background in medical ethics.
I told the theologian that I knew that I couldn’t write the Pill anymore, nor IUD’s. However, I told him that I certainly saw no problem with barrier methods or sterilization—after all, they aren’t abortifacient and I couldn’t force my religious views on my patients. He told me that I really should stop prescribing or referring for any contraception or sterilizations, and that I needed to read Humanae Vitae to understand why.
I read Humanae Vitae, didn’t “get” most of it, but decided (for reasons I still don’t understand today) if I was going to try to be obedient, I would trust this theologian (and God) and go all the way. I told my partners during Holy Week 1996. They didn’t understand my decision, but accepted it.
Shortly after that, we moved to our current home in Charlottesville, Virginia—not due to the NFP issues, but it presented a whole new set of challenges. Richmond was a Diocese with little NFP presence at the time. If I was going to tell patients I wouldn’t prescribe the Pill, then I had to offer something to them. Thus I trained to become a NFP instructor.
Then we doubled our number of children with the addition of fraternal twin boys. With four sons age 4 and under, I stepped back to practicing one weekend a month, and embracing the role of stay-at-home mom—an unplanned gift at that point in my career.
The challenge of NFP only medical practice grew when I tried to re-enter practice part-time when the twins started preschool. Nobody else in Charlottesville practiced this way. I got to a second interview with one group—to be told that he could barely understand Catholics’ opposition to abortion, but having a doctor who would deny women birth control was more than he would allow. I had viewed that group as my last chance at a “normal” job, and I drove off the parking lot in tears. If God wanted me to practice this way, where was He right now?
God’s plans and His providence are perfect. My job was/is to stop being such a “control freak.” We were blessed to establish in a Dominican parish with priests who have been very supportive and willing to listen to me whine about the challenges without letting me off the hook. I ended up building a new family practice inside of the urgent care center where I had been working part time. My boss, though not Catholic, did feel that I had the right to practice the way I felt called.
I went through credentialing and practice setup with four children age 7 and under. Chaos reigned—at one point my dining room table was buried in documents. I deepened my devotion to St. Gianna Molla (my personal go-to saint as another doctor and mother of four) as I struggled to overcome barriers thrown in the path.
Over the years since, my practice has slowly grown, and I’m now working full time with three sons in high school and one in college. My office space actually includes a second-class relic of St. Gianna as well as a prolife Hippocratic oath (not the PC-versions used in med schools now) and a picture of St. Luke.
Why did God chase me so hard back in 1995-96? He had His reasons, and some of them are just becoming clear to me. I’m currently the NFP coordinator at a parish that taught about 1% of the NFP users in the nation (as reported to the USCCB) over the past several years—in SymptoThermal Method (instructors whom I have trained) and Creighton FertilityCare. For the past year, I am also the NFP Coordinator for the Richmond Diocese, and thus bring a medical perspective (and give priests more confidence in promoting these teachings.)
With the encouragement of friends, the financial support of my bishop and pastor, and the willingness of my family to survive two weeks of school, scouts, sports and band schedules without me—I just completed the NaPro Technology Medical Consultant course in Omaha. I have the background now to help women in ways I never knew were possible without the Pill or immoral treatments, with problems such as PMS, irregular cycles, and infertility. I share this knowledge with medical students from UVa (my alma mater) who do their family medicine rotation in my office.
My faith has deepened as well. As the theologian predicted years ago, I have grown to really embrace Humanae Vitae—life is a gift, and we need to have our lives be open to it, wherever it takes us. I’ve been encouraged through the Dominicans and their charism of study to explore other encyclicals such as Evangelium Vitae and my favorite—Veritatis Splendor.
Dominicans are about Veritas—the Truth. The teaching of the Catholic Church on human sexuality IS the Truth. In God’s providence, this journey led to my exploring the Lay Fraternities of St. Dominic—the Dominican “Third Order”—and making life promises in January, 2011.
I recently saw a quote from Bishop Fulton Sheen that applies to my strange journey. “We always make the mistake of thinking that it is what we do that matters, when really what matters is what we let God do to us. God sent the angel to Mary, not to ask her to do something, but to let something be done.”
For all the great things I wanted to do with my life and career, my most “successful” (hopefully in God’s eyes, anyway) moments so far are those which were never on my radar screen…when the Holy Spirit virtually hit me over the head to make sure His will somehow was done. I pray we all may be given always the grace to share Mary’s fiat—to let it be done.
Karen D. Poehailos, MD, NFPMC
Family Physician, Charlottesville, VA
::Karen is a family physician, wife, and mother of four teen sons (which also qualifies her as band/orchestra/cross-country/
18 Replies to “Physician Healed: One Doctor’s Conversion to NFP”
If you want to see some amazing NFP doctor conversion story, I’d recommend you to the book that closely matches the title that Catholicsistas gave to this entry, Physicians Healed by One More Soul (www.omsoul.com.) 15 testimonies are there, mine among them, with a really cute picture of my twins at age 9 months way back when.
I hope NFP practitioners are reminding their “students” that limiting the number of any children through this method is something they MUST discuss with their priest, since the limiting of children is only to be done for grave reasons, not for reasons such as “they aren’t ready” or “we don’t have lots and lots of money right now” or even the disgusting “we couldn’t dream of bringing a child into this horrible world”. Unfortunately I don’t believe this reminder is being given to couples… it’s very sad.
Thanks for commenting, Melissa. I don’t think you will find a requirement by the Church that we discuss our NFP-use with a priest (if you have an official document from the Church that says that, I’d love to see it!) but I certainly agree that it is the wisest course of action, given our human tendency to be dishonest with ourselves about matters such as these. I imagine that NFP practitioners have patients/students who are not Catholic, as well, so it would be great to find a way to speak about the beauty of being entirely open to children in the absence of serious reasons that will reach Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Great conversion story, Karen! I’m honored to know you and I love seeing your posts on facebook! I’m glad there are physicians like you, who are open to the Holy Spirit and God’s Will. 🙂 May you be blessed in all the work you do!
Melissa, there is a common misconception about NFP and the Church — that it is only allowed to use with grave reasons. The translation is actually “just” reasons. These just reasons are left open-ended to allow the couple to prayerfully discern God’s will for them. In a perfect world, couples would not have to use anything to avoid pregnancy. However, if they still needed to avoid pregnancy it would be wonderful if every couple had a well-educated, well-catechized priest for a spiritual advisor. However, this is not typically the case, nor is it a requirement, The entire premise of Catholic taught NFP is to allow the couple to deepen their communication between each other as well as with God. Therefore, during the process of learning NFP, couples are taught to consider each and every day as an opportunity to be open to life.
While NFP can be used to avoid pregnancy, it is also highly effective at tracking and treating women’s health issues without the use of the ‘band-aid’ of birth control. This is another misconception about NFP, that it is merely Catholic “birth control”. However, NFP really helps women deal with their gynecological issues, as well as space their pregnancies, accurately date their pregnancies, and effectively determine any problems with pregnancy (hormonal imbalances). Even when NFP is used to avoid pregnancy, to do so requires great sacrifice and daily planning and acceptance. That essentially prevents most casual “birth control mentality” users from abusing the system.
With proper catechesis
So, hijacking the post a little bit… I just can’t get over that so many of you really want to have lots of children. I went into parenthood with the idea that I’d take as many as we got, but really do not want any more. Honestly (because if you can’t be honest on an anonymous web blog, where can you?) I didn’t want my last baby. And my feelings haven’t changed. I do not feel the same love for that child as I do my others. So at what point do I ‘leave it up to God’ and possibly end up resenting the future children I may or may not conceive (still have plenty of childbearing years left) or do I accept that some of us are not meant to be mothers of bunches? I understand NFP and practice it, but get the gist from many of you here that even that is to be avoided. I am very tired of feeling alone and guilty for not. wanting. any. more. children. Because I don’t. To the point that even practicing NFP is stressful because I am always scared we might get pregnant and I haven’t truly enjoyed being with my husband in a long time. I feel nothing but compassion for my friends struggling to conceive, but would switch places with them in a heartbeat. And in my grave doubts about this, I start to have grave doubts about lots of other things in the church. So do I become an ex-catholic? Or what?
I am truly sorry to hear about your struggles. I think you bring up a good and valid point. I am sure you are not the only woman who feels this way. I do pray that you will come to love your youngest as much as you love the others…you may have unintentionally objectified your youngest – as a :thing to be resented” as opposed to “a child to be loved.”
Speaking from experience, you may want to talk to a mental health professional. If your mental health is in the balance, you need to take that seriously. I am not trying to project on you, or suggest that only ‘mentally ill’ women would not children…I just hear the stress in your message.
I do not claim to know all of the Church’s teaching on this. Do you have a priest you can talk to? One you trust to be compassionate to your circumstances?
I prayer you will have clarity and find the support you need.
I immediately thought the same as Barb-if you seriously do not love your child, then mental health counseling is in order! Or maybe be checked for a hormone imbalance, or thyroid issue? Something that could be causing depression and these related feelings. I mean that in all charity. I got pregnant with my first child when I 16 (using birth control! So don’t be fooled into thinking that abandoning NFP for artificial contraception is a fool proof way to never get pregnant again. You’ll just be in more shock and disbelief, because “I was on birth control!”). I did not want her. Tried to come up with money to abort her (without telling my parents), then, when that didn’t happen, had every intention of placing her for adoption. Then I saw her, and fell head over heels in love, and had to keep her. Up until that point, I thought I hated children. My last child was a total surprise as well, and I was incredibly mad at God (I went to adoration and yelled at Jesus in the Monstrance. Then I went to confession and confessed I yelled at Jesus. The priest laughed, and said “He’s had worse done to Him, He can take it”). I didn’t come to terms with being pregant again until well into the 2nd trimester (long after my husband had accepted and gotten over it). I love him just as much as all my others. I’ve always thought, that, in the context of a loving marriage, even if a pregnancy is unplanned and initially unwanted, the baby is always loved and wanted. I’ll be praying for you.
I am so sorry to read your post. I am sure that was hard for you to write. And I agree, not all of us are meant to be mother to bunches. Sadly, some are not meant to be earthly mothers at all. God made each of us so wonderfully unique.
I don’t think becoming an ex Catholic is going to solve your problems. You need the sacraments in times like this. Keep prayng about it, especially when you are about to recieve the Eucharist. Offer this cross to Him and see what beautiful things He can make of it. Sometimes it takes our minds a bit to catch up with our hearts. We want to be open to His plan but sometimes His plan is a lot of work! Don’t be afraid and trust in Christ. Ask Him to guide you through. I have every confidence your love for your child will grow. Pray for that grace and I will be praying for it as well.
May God bless your efforts <3
Jenna, as our resident really large family representative I’m here to tell you that it’s ok to not want a large family! Not everyone is called to the same vocation. For me it seemed that I have always been called to have many children, but I understand that not all are like me. Just as we are not all mathematicians, engineers, musicians, philanthrapists, etc we are not all called to surround ourselves with oodles of children! We each have different strengths and different weaknesses. That’s ok! As long as we recognize those and do our best with them and use them in the manner in which God is calling us to then we are living a holy life. That is what God wants most of all. He is not calling all of us to have babies until we just can’t have anymore, he’s calling us to be open to His will in our lives… sometimes that means not having children.
I know that life can be overwhelming. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had those thoughts of “Really God? You expect me to do what???” But then I focus on my faith and that God would never give me more than what I can handle. Well, let me rephrase that… I know God will never give me more than what I can handle with His help. I’m sorry that you are struggling and I’m sorry that you are questioning your faith. My suggestion is to turn to Him and offer those struggles up. Ask Him what He wants of you and pray… pray like you’ve never prayed before. Also, find someone you trust to talk with. It sounds as if you need a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen to you. A priest is a great person for this but also just a trusted friend if you can’t go to your priest. Likewise, as stated above, maybe checking into see if all your hormones are ok and that you aren’t suffering from depression or PPD. If you are perhaps getting help for those things will also help.
It’s hard when you feel alone. Please know that you aren’t. There are many women out there feeling many of those same feelings you are. I hope you discover not only the love that God has for you but that you have for your youngest child. Both of you deserve to have that love in your life. I will be praying for you and for your family. Remember, God wants you to follow the path that is set out for YOU, not for anyone else. Right now it sounds as if you are on a path where He’s leading you to discover how very wonderful it can be to have faith in Him. Fall in love with Christ and you will fall in love with your children.
Lots of love and prayers coming your way!
Dr. Poehailos, thank you so much for such a wonderful article!! I’m so proud of your journey!
Karen, you are amazing!
Jenna, the others have already mentioned many of my thoughts. When depression hit me, I started to feel things that left me wondering who the heck this person called “me” now was. So that’s something definitely worth looking into. I was incredibly relieved when I finally figured out what it was and could get medical help for it.
Aside from that, I would seriously consider going before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. See if your parish has Eucharistic Adoration, either in a Perpetual Adoration chapel or at specified times in the church. If not, look for one near you that might. Going before the Real Presence of our God continues to be an incredible source of peace in my life, and it’s actually where I finally realized that my problem was depression! I thank God for that. Many other people have also found answers to questions they have been struggling with, when they have taken them before the Blessed Sacrament. Hugs to you!
Dear Jenna, I also want to say that feelings are not right or wrong – they just are. And love is not a feeling (affection is a feeling), it is a decision. I’m willing to bet that you make a great many acts of the will to take care of your youngest child every single day. THAT is love. And I would even say that, because the feelings are not there, your acts of the will are even more meritorious by the pure fact that they are harder to do, and you do them anyway. Jesus did not have lovely feelings about his passion; in fact, he specifically prayed to the Father that he wouldn’t have to suffer…he didn’t want to. But he did it anyway, because he willed to do the Father’s will. And now we call that the greatest act of love the world has ever seen.
By the way, I do consider emotional health a just reason to postpone pregnancy. Just as there can be physical health issues, there can be mental health issues, which do need to be taken seriously for the good of the entire family.
P.S. Just curious, was there any trauma involved in the birth of your child? Or even just a more detached birth, like a cesarean? These things have been shown to cause bonding issues between mom and baby, and if so, that might be another piece to the puzzle. Holding you close in my prayers tonight, dear sister.
Using NFP does NOT mean a couple *wants* a bunch of children. Neither does it mean that a couple will *have* a bunch of children. instead NFP gives us an understanding of how women’s bodies work and the ability to work *with* God & our bodies, not against (‘contra’ in ‘contraception’ means against) God & our bodies. The only requirement for NFP is that you would accept another child as a gift from God, even if you felt like it was a curse. Openness to life doesn’t mean that you want to create a whole bunch more lives; it just means that if that is what God gives you, you’ll accept.
I completely understand your fear of another child. I was terrified when I conceived my daughter (my last of 6 pregnancies). The pregnancy prior to hers almost killed me when my mmiscarriage lead to excessive bleeding. To be honest, I never really got excited about that pregnancy. Once the terror of the first 12 miscarriage-prone weeks were behind us, we had the terror of a breast cancer diagnosis looming ahead of us. Once I was diagnosed I seriously asked God to just let me miscarry so I wouldn’t have to make any hard choices (die without treatment to save my baby or kill my baby to save my life). Thankfully, instead of answering my prayer the way I thought I wanted, God directed me to MD Anderson where I could be a part of a program that had been saving the lives of breast-cancer stricken pregnant mothers for 20 years.
After I delivered my little girl, I was under strict orders to avoid conception for at least 2 years. I had one nurse-practitioner repeatedly call my judgement into question and try every method she knew to get my husband and me to use artificial birth control. Even though I was scared to death, I remained firm in my decision to use NFP and only NFP to avoid pregnancy. My husband and I were definitely afraid that we would fail in our attempt to TTA. However, by then we had come so far in our marriage and trust in God, that we kept to the narrow road of *very* conservative NFP for TTA. It was difficult, I won’t deny that! Yet, we survived and our marriage is definitely stronger now than it was prior to my diagnosis.
I don’t think any of the Sistas thinks that every couple is called to having bunches of children. I don’t think any of the Sistas thinks that practicing NFP to TTA should be avoided at all costs. On the contrary, most of the Sistas have used NFP successfully to TTA at one point or another. Some we ambivalent during their TTA, so they failed to avoid (NFP didn’t fail, their decision changed). If you and your husband decide that TTA is the choice you should make, feel confident that by using NFP (in any way) you are respecting God’s design for marriage. Pray for peace, understanding, love, and grace from God to help you with your discernment and mostly the implementation of your NFP. Together, you, your husband, and God, can and will give you only what you can handle. Grow closer as a couple and as God’s children through your journey of avoiding pregnancy. It is possible, since all things are possible with God. Just remember to keep God close to your heart and soul; He’ll take care of you! Peace & prayers!
Great story Karen! As someone with a similar experience, I can totally relate! Sometimes it does seem like the Holy Spirit needs to get us over the head!
Well, perhaps the anonymous message board was not the place to be honest after all, as I did not mean to cause concern for all of you. I guess I should clarify that my youngest child is not an infant. And I do love my youngest child and am happy that she is healthy and well, but am very longful for the way our life was before she was born and sad to know that our family dynamic as it was is gone forever. The thought of having another child fills me with… well, dread is the best word I can think of. When you all speak of being “open” to another child, that is exactly what I am NOT. I am not depressed or in a funk in any other way except that I have a sister and several friends struggling with trying TO have a baby and feel guilty because I have absolutely no desire for another. In fact, if I could, I would have a baby and give it to my sister, so it is not the pregnancy part that bothers me.
However, I did speak openly with my husband about this yesterday, instead of just making the vague comment or remark (or “not tonight honey because I’m within 10 days of ovulating”) and found that we are on the same page. So I am sure we will work it out in a way that will keep our marriage and family together in a healthy way, as opposed to the path that I feel we were heading down, which was not good. It is difficult to express these things accurately in such a forum and I realize that it is futile to expect to find an answer within such when I really need to find an answer with myself and my husband. Thanks.
[Attempt for greater readability:]
I can appreciate how many individuals can find safety and health and responsible parenthood within NFP. In my pastoral work, however, I have found many whose lives have been massively harmed and spiritually shattered by a one-sided adherence to NFP [as Jenna testifies above].
The Catholic hierarchy has not yet come clean on the dubious route taken to arrive at our present position:
By what right did Paul VI set aside the principles of consultation and collaboration when he entirely overturned the near-unanimous decision of the Pontifical Birth Control Commission that had been studying the issue for over three years?
By what right did Paul VI affirm Vatican II when it declared that “it is the married couples themselves who must in the last analysis arrive at these judgments” (Gaudium et Spes § 50) and then turn around and say the opposite: “the married are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life” (Humanae Vitae § 10).
The deposit of revelation says nothing about “the pill”; hence, moral guidance in this realm had to rely upon general moral principles and the immediate and direct experience of Catholic couples. Paul VI had no extensive experience with sexual love and no experience with the role that love-making plays in binding a couple together in good times and in hard times. Hence, Paul VI had no option but to depend upon the experience of those who did have such experiences.
Patricia Crowley, a lay member of the Birth Control Commission, had given Paul VI a selection of letters from members of the Catholic Family Movement around the world tied together by a blue ribbon. Many of these letters detailed the hardships and frustrations associated with irregular menstrual cycles and with the unplanned and unintended pregnancies that resulted from NFP. By what right did Paul VI ignore these letters and impose by the weight of his office a judgment that inflicted needless pain and frustration into the lives of so many faithful Catholic couples who would rely upon his judgment?
If Paul VI had been transparent and collegial, he might have said that NFP was the better way, even the best way. But it was irresponsible and wrong-headed for him to impose NFM as the ONLY WAY?
It was contended that the Church could not modify its teaching on birth regulation because that teaching had been proposed unanimously as certain by the bishops around the world with the pope over a long period of time. To this point Cardinal Suenens replied: “We have heard arguments based on ‘what the bishops all taught for decades.’ Well, the bishops did defend the classical position. But it was one imposed on them by authority. The bishops didn’t study the pros and cons. They received directives, they bowed to them, and they tried to explain them to their congregations.”
Coercive insistence on official formulations tells the laity in no uncertain terms that their experience and reflection make no difference. This in spite of Vatican II ‘s contrary assertion: “Let it be recognized that all of the faithful-clerical and lay-possess a lawful freedom of inquiry and of thought, and the freedom to express their minds humbly and courageously about those matters in which they enjoy competence”(27). If such humble and courageous expressions count for nothing, we experience yet another wound to the authority of the ordinary magisterium. The search for truth falls victim to ideology.
The dramatic and moving article shown above reflects a point of view, and I respect this. The undercurrent, however, is that all Catholic doctors should follow the conversion route taken by this one doctor. This is where a reprehensible ideology takes over that is not worthy of our divine calling to build bridges and to begin to heal the pain and frustration that NFP inflicted upon the lives of tens of thousands of faithful Catholic couples.
Tell the truth, yes! But it is far more virtuous to tell the whole truth. . . .
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