Medical Director, Rostropovich Foundation and Professor of Pediatrics, GUMC (retired)
As a Georgetown graduate of both the college and medical school, what aspect of the Jesuit tradition has had the most impact on your professional endeavors?
My Jesuit experience at Georgetown fueled a certain innate restlessness I’ve always had, an inquisitiveness about things even if they were not well matched to my physical and intellectual strengths. The fuel of highest octane, oddly enough, came from the philosophy and theology courses required for any degree in those years. I was a biology major studying anatomy and physiology, the form and function of life, while also reading Teilhard de Chardin and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Book of Job. The result was a life in medicine that I think was quite different than many such lives. And that forme fruste of a pediatric career led me to my current work in international health and an embrace of the writing life that is now bearing fruit. Indeed, I’ve written a new novel, not yet shared with my literary agent, that recasts Bonhoeffer’s life in modern times as told through the life of a Jesuit missionary priest imprisoned in Azerbaijan (where I often work.)
How did you first become involved with the Rostropovich Foundation?
In the mid ’90s I was pleased to be asked by my then-Chairman (Dr. Owen Rennert, a giant in the field of genetics and the finest man to chair a department at the Med school during my 33 years there) to work with the newly-created Rostropovich Foundation to bring modern health care to children in the just-collapsed Soviet Union. Slava Rostropovich was a friend of his from the Kennedy Center and approached him for this assistance. Of course, I agreed (who didn’t want to experience Russia in the early days of that country’s climb our of its old communist ways? Ah, so sad, the present). In October of 1996 I did a two-week stint as visiting professor at the Pediatric Institute in St. Petersburg. There I discovered how woefully behind Russia was in its approach to preventive care (especially vaccination) for its pediatric population. Thus, working with the new executive director of the foundation, Billy Amoss, I crafted a pilot Hepatitis B catch-up vaccination effort in a small beautiful village, Vacha, in a rural area of western Russia (close your eyes and recall the country scenes from Dr. Zhivago. Vacha!). That program was wildly successful, and paved the way for our obtaining almost $20 million of U.S. government funding to expand that program to all oblasts of Russia. In the end, we vaccinated two million kids—but more importantly, it showed the foundation’s board of directors that the foundation’s main direction should be in public health. Over the following years, we expanded our programs to other countries, including Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Palestine (West Bank and Gaza).
Twenty years on, I’m still working for the Rostropovich Foundation. But, it being Lent as I write this, I must confess: I am the most reluctant of humanitarians. My constitution seems always outmatched by the rigors of the travel and living conditions of the work. I am quite convinced that I would have quit long ago were it not for Chardin’s divine milieu shinning in the faces of Gazan and Kyrgyz and Russian mothers and children, and Bonhoeffer’s softly whispered admonition against cheap grace.
I also get to bring home wonderful scarves for my bride of 43 years who is my biggest source of spiritual and physical connection to what’s really real, Judy Dreelin Wientzen (N’72).
What have been some of the most rewarding aspects of your career as both a pediatrician and professor of pediatric medicine?
There is an energy in pediatric medicine that comes from working with “young” people, from neonates to teenagers to moms and dads. It is wonderful to get a fizz from your work, and my life in pediatric medicine during my years at Georgetown bubbled like a nice champagne. In addition, I took great delight in teaching medical students and resident physicians the art and science of medicine. It made me feel connected to so many wonderful mentors I had during my education.
What was your inspiration for your novel, The Assembler of Parts?
I think at its root the inspiration was my mulling over the “Problem of God” through my work in caring for kids struck ill in various devastating, irretrievable ways. Or more simply put, how can one reconcile evil, moral and physical evil, with a benign deity? I was always left cold by the concept of “free will” as explanation and felt it had more to do with the true nature of God’s love. Thus, The Assembler.
What is in your Netflix queue?
Anyway, gory or not, I’m interested in seeing The Revenant. My earliest readings during TV-less summers were novels of trappers, traders, and pioneers.
Any parting words of wisdom for your fellow Hoyas?
Sure. The physician in me says, invest in your health. See your doctor. Get your colonoscopy. Work out daily. Eat salmon. Don’t drink too much alcohol. The man with aching joints in me says, sit down, connect with people you love, especially from the past. Don’t worry about money. Treat your spouse like a living god or goddess. Only say yes. If you don’t have kids, have some. If you do have kids, let them be who they are. Read every day. Do something for people who can never repay you. Once you’ve done that, do it again. Let it be your prayer. Or as the Jesuits try to be, be a man/woman for others. And what else? Oh, yes, as my friend Bill Licamele would say, GO HOYAS.