Medical panel talks culture of life in the workplace

By Agnieszka Ruck, The B.C. Catholic

[Vancouver – Canadian Catholic News] – Wanting to die often has to do with a deeper level of suffering than appears on the surface. That’s the experience of Dr. Rafael Sumalinog, a Catholic physician-resident in internal medicine practicing in Vancouver.

Speaking to about 15 young professionals at a virtual YP Lounge event, he said when a patient asks him about medically-assisted suicide/ euthanasia (known as “Medical Aid in Dying or MAiD”), he shifts the conversation.

“I see a lot of adults, often elderly folks, with a lot of medical issues, often pain and confusion, things like that. I saw a patient who … wanted the option of MAiD … As soon as people suffer or face a lot of adversity, there is a button that people at least want the option for, the button to get out.” But Sumalinog has realized depression and a “deeper level of suffering that has not been addressed” was behind his patients’ desire to die.

Sumalinog was one of two doctors on the panel who spoke about what it means to be pro-life in today’s medical system. Riley Chen-Mack, a resident in pediatrics who became Catholic and pro-life as recently as 2018, also addressed the event.

“For me, becoming Catholic was part of the journey in recognizing that a universal truth exists and plays into my work, every day. However, I have colleagues who hold pro-life views that are not related to any specific religion,” he told The B.C. Catholic after the virtual event.

“For example, I cannot reconcile how our health-care team can perform life-saving surgical procedures on a 25-week-old child, while in the same complex an abortion can be performed on a premature infant up to 24 weeks gestational age. To me, it seems like these universal truths of life and death currently are at the hands of whatever decision is made by the health-care team and parents,” he said.

“Things cannot be this variable based on what the parent or physician is thinking that day … There is a grounded truth for all of us.”

Chen-Mack is concerned about the expansion of euthanasia for children, which is now being considered in Canada. “We know that the executive function of the human brain – the ability to self-regulate behaviour in situations, to make fully coherent decisions – does not fully develop until late teen years, even into the early 20s for some people. At this point, you’re no longer considered a pediatric patient,” Chen-Mack said, calling for a “hard look” at how the medical system assesses a child’s capacity to make a life or death decision.

He said having solid relationships with parents and community supports are crucial for children, especially in times when life seems too difficult.

“We have many children come into hospital with an eating disorder, who have been starving themselves because they ‘don’t like their bodies.’ They have been starving themselves to the point of being medically unstable. We don’t let them continue to starve themselves once they’re admitted under our care, even if they want to – we recognize that they are lacking insight in that moment. Instead, we … address a deeper wound that is the root of this behaviour,” he said.

“I wonder why other children who enter the hospital, not liking their bodies and wanting surgical or medical procedures to make permanent changes to them, are not treated in the same way, and with the same compassion? There are few children in their teenage years that do like their body! It tells me that these children need to be protected.”

For Chen-Mack, “culture of life” is about valuing every day and learning to cope with challenges that will arise.

“A community that says, ‘I understand that you are going through this pain or this wound, but we will meet you where you are at and support you through this pain together,’ is much different from a society that says ‘I will take away this problem from you by making a permanent life-change that you may regret later,’ without involving other support to address the deeper wound that is causing the behaviour.”

Also on the panel was Cristina Alarcon, a pharmacist for 20 years who refuses to dispense birth control pills. She told the virtual gathering she has been pro-life as long as she can remember, but grew into her convictions in a real way during her studies.

“Shortly after entering pharmacy school, I realized there would be problems, there would be things that would be difficult for me, but I was able to resolve them little by little.”

One of those first major complications was when the morning-after pill became a patented product in the U.S. in 1999 and Canada in 2000. “It had always been an overdose of birth control pills,” but the morning after pill took it to another level.

The headlines were all over the place saying pharmacists were overjoyed that this had come about. I said: ‘I don’t think we’re all happy about this.’”

She refused to dispense it, feeling challenged in her conscience. The pill is now available without a prescription, but some pharmacies carry abortion or euthanasia drugs Alarcon remains opposed to.

“I wouldn’t take a job where I would be forced to dispense [them]. I would rather switch careers,” she said. “I’ve been able to negotiate. I’ve been working in various places and never had to go against my conscience in any way.”

Alarcon has been so open about her values, she’s become something of an ethics consultant among her peers. It’s not only to do with birth control pills, either; she’s been involved in conversations about business ethics and other sticky issues, too.

She said being honest and upfront about her beliefs, coupled with professional skill and a willingness to help colleagues in other areas, has helped her gain respect among colleagues and stay employed without betraying her conscience.

“There’s a misunderstanding of what conscience is. Everything is relegated to your private beliefs or your whim. It’s a complete misunderstanding,” she said. “We don’t do something just because it’s not going to harm us, but because we genuinely believe in the good of the other person. It’s all tied together.”

Simalinog echoed similar sentiments. “It’s one thing to have these concepts on a screen and have people read about them,” he said. What people need to see is “your personal example, living it out and being true to your principles and values.”

Young Professionals (YP) Lounge is a program by Vancouver’s Life Community.