Q&A with Ginny McCarthy, Director of Health Sciences Division Ministry

By Jacob Adney, SDN Staff Writer

Ask any doctor, in any specialty and of any age, and they will remember their training in medical school. It is full of learning, new experiences, new friends, and major strides in both personal and professional development. With so many changes, dozens of obstacles in each student’s life must be confronted and overcome. Fortunately, medical schools have extraordinary people who devote their time and talent to guiding and supporting medical students through their four years. This column interviews these people at medical schools around the country to help students learn more about the resources they have available during their years in school.

In our fifth installment, I interviewed Ms. Ginny McCarthy. Ms. McCarthy is the Director of Health Sciences Division Ministry at Loyola University Chicago. She is currently working toward her Master of Public Health. Ms. McCarthy is married and has three children, enjoys running and cooking, and is grateful for continued opportunities for learning and growth.

ginny McCarthyPlease summarize your role at the medical school.

The Ministry Department offers a range of programming inspired by our Catholic, Jesuit heritage including: community building, retreats, the celebration of Catholic Mass, prayer space and gatherings for all faith traditions, interfaith sharing opportunities, service opportunities, domestic and international service immersion, and a variety of formation and mentorship opportunities. The vision behind the work of our department is to meet students at whatever stage of life they are in and accompany them during their time in medical school and beyond. We encourage medical students to not only fulfill their capacity as physicians, but also to continue to seek opportunities to become the fullest version of themselves as individual people. Our work supports professional identity formation. To this end, we are very responsive to student requests for programming and will partner with a host of student wellness or advocacy initiatives.

Our office is situated immediately off of the atrium in the center of the medical school; we easily receive over one hundred visits a day as students pass through for coffee, tea, or snacks, participate in programming, or simply sit and socialize for awhile. Our office provides opportunities for students to network within the health professions, both formally and informally, as our student body is comprised of medical students, nursing students, public health students, and biomedical graduate students. Finally, our office hosts faculty and staff programming for the Health Sciences Campus, which includes representation from both the University and our Hospital system.

How common is your position at medical schools, i.e. is it a traditional position or a newly developed one?

While it is not uncommon for religious and secular institutions to have Campus Ministry or a Newman Center, Loyola is unique in the fact that we have a Ministry team uniquely dedicated to the health sciences students, faculty, and staff. We are also uniquely situated on a shared campus with our hospital. Ministry has been a part of the medical school since its inception and has expanded steadily as our institution has increased the programmatic scope of the Health Sciences Campus.

Why did you choose to join Campus Ministry and ultimately become the director of the department?

Three factors drove me to Loyola—first, its situation in Jesuit education. If you don’t know much about Ignatian Spirituality (St. Ignatius is the founder of the Society of Jesus, the “Jesuits”), here is a great article and a short video which describe the central tenets of the faith tradition and practice. Ignatian Spirituality offers the idea that encounters with God occur regularly in and through daily life. As a result, Jesuit education includes a strong social mission which highly values the life path of individuals and communities. When providing care as health professionals, we might translate this approach as concern for the whole person in front of us, as well as the social determinants of health which influence care. This real and active engagement in the social mission, both in personal formation of physicians and healthcare professionals as well as engagement in the community, comprises the second reason I came to Loyola. A third feature that drew me to Loyola is the ethos of the community. Students often comment that Loyola felt different on their interview day. Why is this? Most simply, I would suggest that Loyola invites and celebrates authenticity. People genuinely desire the success of one another and our community leads with this invitation and inclusivity in a manner that is nearly palpable.

What was your path to your current role?

My background is Theology. I completed my degrees at two Jesuit institutions, with my undergraduate work at Saint Louis University and my Master of Divinity (Theology) at Weston Jesuit School of Theology (now a part of Boston College). Throughout my training, I had an idea that I wanted to be engaged in higher education, preferably Jesuit higher education, and that I wanted to be engaged with students, faculty, and staff around issues of social justice and advocacy. I began at Loyola in 2008 in a shared position between the Department of Ministry and the Center for Community and Global Health. After a decade of work in the Health Sciences Division, I have also begun a Master’s program in Public Health. When in Rome, I suppose…but truthfully, the cross-sector work of public health fits very naturally in this environment and often offers a path by which passions for faith, service, and justice meet the needs and resources of the world in an ethical and comprehensive fashion.

Why did you choose to work at a medical school?

I chose to apply to Loyola because of the high praises around Loyola’s commitment to the Jesuit, Catholic mission of the university, in particular, through service immersion (the Ignatian Service Immersion program, to be precise). When I joined the team at Loyola, I spent half of my time in the Ministry Department and half of my time working alongside my physician colleague, Dr. Amy Blair, developing the Center for Community and Global Health in the medical school. It was this commitment to global health, inspired in and through the Jesuit mission of the school, that drew me in. After several years in Global Health, I returned to ministry!

Are there unique challenges to your role at a medical school?

The calendar! It is not uncommon for us to work with students to establish a program or retreat that, as the date approaches, becomes far less feasible than we had originally thought. Even born of great interest, the ever-shifting calendar, combined with the rigor of studies over the four years and across our health sciences programs, can sometimes make even the strongest, most desired programming an impossibility at the last minute. This is also challenging when we incorporate a faculty and staff mentorship component. No one remains unaffected by the fast pace and high demand of healthcare!

On a more serious note, the exposure to the realities of the human narrative unfolds in new and often unanticipated ways in the lives of students. From concepts of health inequity to even the limited preclinical exposures to clinical practice in the first two years, students witness firsthand the impartiality of disease and suffering. Coupled with a rigorous curriculum, plagued (somewhat unnecessarily) by the thought that every move matters for residency, and the specialty/residency/Match question, and anything else life has to offer outside of medicine—these four years can be quite stressful and even deeply unsettling. Questions of work-life integration, mentorship, self-care, compassion fatigue, physician wellness, and burnout surface with regularity. Our Ministry department works closely with students, as well as other departments within the medical school, throughout their medical training, accompanying students as they navigate these new realities. While not a challenge, per se, these experiences define the medical student experience on many levels and, thus, the spectrum of engagement of the Ministry department.

Is there anything that surprised you when working at a medical school?

I have heard more accounts of the human body and medical treatment than I could have ever imagined. The rigor and pressures of medical education. The fragility and preciousness of human life. The complexities of medical care.

Has your view of your work changed since you began working with medical students?

Over the years, I have realized how deeply medical students, and human beings in general, value and long for meaningful human connection and purpose. The ability to work with students through medical training into practice, watching careers and commitments unfold, students overcome adversity, and passion for the holistic care of patients, colleagues, and themselves take root and thrive has given great insight into the way that ministry takes seriously questions of faith and meaning in medicine. The opportunity for rich conversation is never lacking; we simply have to listen to the community and create the space and structure for connection.

Ten years ago, I may have focused more specifically on my own agenda—what do I think medical students need to know or experience; I am now more comfortable allowing direction to unfold in the more immediate context—what is needed right now and where are we headed next? I also realize that the 30,000 foot view of our work needs to incorporate physician wellness and begin to work with students on building and fostering skills and practices of resiliency. These immediate and long-term goals can be held in conversation in a rather logical and coherent fashion.

Please describe a typical day in your shoes.

Meetings! Email! Conversation! I love the diversity of my days, in any given week and over the course of the year. I would say I have a steady blend of conversation with students, ministry programming, project-based and departmentally-collaborative meetings, office logistics, departmental meetings and visioning, and ongoing evaluation of our efforts. Financial responsibilities. Long-term planning. My days often unfold in an unanticipated fashion, but that’s certainly not unique to my position.

What is your favorite part of your job?

Hands down, my favorite part of my job the privilege of working with phenomenal students and colleagues who believe in creating a supportive community and invest in one another as current and future healthcare providers and educators in the field. This work is further enriched by the unique lens of our Jesuit, Catholic mission.

I also enjoy creative visioning—how do we pool resources and share planning for common goals? How do we connect individuals and departments with similar goals and initiatives with one another? How do we connect students with mentors and those who hold shared values with one another? What resources exist in our immediate and surrounding community, and how do we make this information known?

What is the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of my job is feeling as though I never have enough hours in the day to have all of the conversations and complete all of the planning I would like to complete in a timely fashion.

Is there any general advice you typically give medical students?

Be who you are. You’ve “made it” in so many ways. Now is your time to learn through experiences that form you as a person and as a future health practitioner. Define how you would like to grow as a person and find the resources that support you in this difficult and meaningful work. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Follow what you love, not what you think is expected of you. And don’t start studying for Step One until at least March of your second year! ;)

Can you share any especially memorable experiences you have had serving in your position?

There have been several moments where I have been especially proud of our University, but if I had to limit it to just one, I would say when Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine began, in 2012, to recruit and accept applicants who hold DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) immigration status. Through this commitment of the University, made possible by the tireless work of Dr. Mark Kuczewski and our former medical school Dean Dr. Linda Brubaker, our community has had the distinct privilege of welcoming DACA students into our community and formally into medical education. Our community, as a whole, benefits from the presence of these talented and resilient students as current colleagues and future providers.

About the Author

Raised in Wyoming, Jacob Adney is a second year medical student at Saint Louis University School of Medicine in Saint Louis, Missouri. Along with his medical studies, Jacob is pursuing a distinction in medical education and volunteers as an assistant instructor teaching science to grade school kids. He currently researches the effects of smoking on heart tissue and innovative methods to improve patient follow-up.

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