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Feature Articles

Call and Purpose
By S. Fran Trampiets, printed in 2012

S. Mary Ellen MurphyS. Montiel Rosenthal is director of Maternity Services in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine.

By her junior year at Seton High School, S. Montiel Rosenthal had it all planned. She knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life. She’d skip her senior year and begin the honor’s program in biology at the University of Delaware, to which she had already applied and gotten a scholarship. Then she would get master’s degrees in ornithology and entomology, then a doctorate that would prepare her for her career as a research and interpretive naturalist. Along the way she would marry, have three children and they would live on a farm in the western mountains of Virginia.

Before starting the program at the University of Delaware, she had to read 30 books related to the field of biology. “Many of them dealt with medical genetics. I’d plunk down under the peach tree in our backyard and read – I ate it all up. Then I’d go into the house chattering about this syndrome and that syndrome. One night my parents asked if I’d given any thought to going into medicine. ‘Why would I want to do that?’ I asked.”

They encouraged her to think about it and pray about it; to discern what God might be calling her to do. “The more I thought about it the more restless I became because this wasn’t what I had in mind,” she said. But as she continued to discern, she began to feel a call to medicine - and to religious life. 

“Gradually there was a sense of call and purpose that just wouldn’t go away,” S. Montiel said.

She applied and was accepted into the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine and graduated in 1986 with an M.D. in Family Medicine. “I’m a generalist,” S. Montiel says. “I enjoy caring for a broad spectrum of whoever presents themselves. I enjoy caring for the most vulnerable, and meeting them with dignity. There’s a place for the specialist, but everything is related to everything else and I’m fascinated by how fearfully and wonderfully made we are. I’m fascinated by the interrelationship of psyche, soul, body, family history, family dynamics, social milieu. Everything is interrelated.” 

The same year she got her medical degree, S. Montiel entered the Sisters of Charity, with the understanding that she would complete her residency requirements before beginning her novitiate. She did her formal residency in Family Medicine at University Hospital at U.C. working also at Good Samaritan, Children’s, Jewish, the V.A. and other area hospitals.

After making first vows, and completing a one-year fellowship in obstetrics at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Northern Kentucky, she interviewed across the country, “…looking for a place where there was a challenge of redefining how health care is delivered in the area. I enjoy solving problems, sorting things out and resolving dilemmas.” St. Claire Medical Center in Morehead, Ky., had received a petition from the people in Elliott County to open a clinic to serve the entire county. The only doctor serving that area had lost his license and they had no one providing medical care. The hospital provided the clinic and hired S. Montiel as director of the Elliott County Medical Center.

About that time, in the mid-1990s, the bishops of the Eastern European countries formerly under Communist control asked religious communities in the U.S. to send Sisters to teach their religious modern methods of apostolic ministry and teaching about the Catholic faith. S. Montiel applied and was given the option of working in Armenia or Siberia. Easy decision!

She arrived in Armenia in 1995. “I spent the first week on the side of a mountain at a catechetical program, teaching health and hygiene,” she said. “I was very taken by these youth. They were mountain folks – the language was different, but the mentality was very similar to the folks of Eastern Kentucky.  I returned to the United States a month later knowing that if I had a chance to go back I’d go in a heartbeat.”

Back she went – this time for five years. In addition to providing medical training, she recalls, “I think I helped restore trust among the people.” In the former Soviet Union people lived in fear. “Who could you trust? As a physician I deal in trust. I still get e-mails from folks back there saying they tell me this, but I know you’ll tell me the truth.” 

During those five years in Armenia, S. Montiel helped hospital administrators and doctors update their delivery of health care. She worked under the auspices of the Ministry of Health and was subsidized by the Sisters of Charity. She provided medical care and established a clinic for those with no insurance. She also worked with humanitarian groups, teaching them how to provide medical humanitarian assistance more efficiently and effectively. When she asked the best way to deliver medical supplies to the villages, she was told, “Just drop them from a plane at 10,000 meters. The people will see that they get where they are most needed. You can’t trust the government.”

She was able to get medical supplies from International Caritas and other humanitarian organizations - and introduced efficient delivery systems. Late one night as she was unpacking and sorting supplies, bone-tired but determined to finish, she pulled out a mechanical heart valve, “worth thousands and thousands of dollars.” She took the heart valve with other supplies to a cardiology hospital. The doctors looked at the device disbelievingly and said, “This is exactly the size needed for one of our patients.”

S. Montiel discovered, shortly after arriving in Armenia, a disturbing remnant of their days behind the Iron Curtain. Persons born with disabilities “…were non-people; they didn’t exist. A veteran or victim of a natural disaster got some assistance from the government, but if you were born that way, God help you. You were seen as mentally and physically deficient and a burden on society. As a result of these attitudes the death rate for children in the former Soviet Union countries, particularly Armenia, was obscenely high,” said S. Montiel. “Doctors regularly dealt with a newborn with a disability by taking the child from its mother, giving it a lethal injection and telling the mother that her child was terribly deformed and they had taken care of it. I challenged a doctor and he replied angrily, ‘Why do you keep asking us about this?’ ‘Because a society is judged by how it treats its most vulnerable members,’ I replied.

“I’d read about the L’Arche Community in France and wrote Jean Vanier asking if I could come and see how it worked. I went and was told if an outsider tells the Armenians what you’re doing isn’t right, this is what you should do, they won’t listen. If one of their own tells them, they will listen. I asked them to come to Armenia and start a community. Their response was, ‘No, it doesn’t work that way, community has to start from within. Why don’t you start a Faith and Light community? Start with families who have a child with disabilities.

“So I helped to start a Faith and Light community, first with prayer and birthday parties, then with sing-a-longs. Eventually some began coming to Mass. The parishioners were resentful and a few were outraged that handicapped children were coming to Mass. And it was some of those same parishioners who, when I was preparing to leave Armenia, came to me and said, ‘Thank you so much. The children have taught us what it means to be truly Christian.’”

Recalling those five years, she says, “I treasure the folks I met there. Armenians have an immense sense of hospitality that we just don’t understand in the western world. Perhaps it’s the grace of poverty.”

S. Montiel returned to the U.S. in 2002 and is now associate clinical professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Medicine. She is director of Maternity Services for her department.

“We’re primarily based at The Christ Hospital and serve women in the Prenatal Clinic who would be considered economically vulnerable,” she says. “I teach office procedures and minor surgical procedures. I’m also on the residency faculty so I take turns when our patients are admitted to the hospital and assist in caring for our moms and their babies. In any given week there’s a 24-hour period when I’m on call for OB. An evening and an afternoon each week I see my own patients, in our Family Medicine Center, where I am medical director. I usually have a medical student with me to learn some of the practical aspects of interfacing with the patients. The Family Medicine residents are energetic, enthusiastic and altruistic young folks who want to be outstanding family doctors, and if I can help them do that. I’ve done a little bit of what I’m about.” 

As she talks enthusiastically about her medical practice, her students and her training of residents, it’s clear that her healing art encompasses healing of body, mind and spirit. That might explain her interest in Eastern medicine. 

“I’d heard about acupuncture in one of S. Rose Cheng’s presentations and then I was exposed to it on two occasions - and it worked. Acupuncture makes sense; it intersects with Western medicine.” 

S. Montiel is now a certified medical acupuncturist, practices acupuncture, and teaches her students some of the fundamentals.

Her medical career isn’t the whole story; she has a wide range of interests: acquiring a black belt in karate (in college), becoming a certified scuba diver and diving in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, playing the celtic harp (along with S. Paula Russell as a member of Cincinnati Harpers’ Robin), and most recently, gardening. S. Montiel lives at Holy Family convent in Lower Price Hill. Nearby is Enright Eco-Village Cooperative.

“It’s a version of urban farming,” she said. “We pay for a share of the produce, work in the various small plots of land in the neighborhood, and each week, we get our share of what’s been harvested. The gardens are in our neighborhood so you get to know your neighbors better and can plant some seeds in the young minds of folks volunteering there.” 

S. Montiel has always chosen to live in community and among the poor. In spite of a demanding schedule, she is actively involved in the life of the Congregation. She has a special interest in the Associate program and had a young woman who was interested in religious life live and work with her in Morehead. She served on the 2007 Chapter Planning Committee, on the Corporate Responsibility Committee, and is on the Corporate Work Study Program Board for DePaul Cristo Rey High School.

“It’s a challenge to integrate two vocations,” she says, “to live in a secular world with sometimes competing priorities and still hold on to values I hold dear. I need to be very much in the world to understand my patients’ lives. I think I witness by my presence.

“Community life is a blessing and a challenge, but there’s a grace to it,” she says. “It’s a grace to come home and share a perspective about life apart from medicine and with women who have a shared sense of purpose. We choose to be Sisters of Charity and to be there for one another. Most of the time it’s a blessing, sometimes it’s a challenge. But if I had it to do over again, I’d certainly do it.”