Doctor & nun: How Sister Katherine answers the Gospel call

Being a doctor and a nun, as Sister Katherine Seibert sees it, are dual responses to a singular call: to live out the Gospel with a compassionate heart.

“They’re one in the same, really,” she says. 

A patient once asked her, “When do you do your nun thing?”

“All the time,” she told him.

At age 80, the Sister of Charity no longer practices oncology but still cares for cancer patients two and half days a week through a non-profit health center in Monticello, N.Y.

Sister Katherine found her professional calling after answering her religious calling, entering the novitiate at 18 and beginning medical school at 35.

It was the Sisters of Charity who introduced her to the power of service-oriented healthcare, a tradition that women religious are steeped in. The Sisters of Charity made major contributions to the field. In response to the 1849 cholera epidemic, they opened St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York. They staffed the Military Hospital after the Civil War in McGowan’s Pass, now part of Central Park. They organized the smallpox hospital in Roosevelt Island during the smallpox outbreak. They founded Seton Hospital to care for tuberculosis patients who were not accepted into the city hospital. And, with a $5 investment, they founded the New York Foundling Hospital in a small rented brownstone on East 12th Street to care for infants left by the poor on the convent doorstep. There, Sister Katherine volunteered as a teen, working in the nursery with the toddlers. She admired the nuns who ran the hospital.

From a young age the New York native could envision herself as a Catholic sister. “It was pretty clear-cut,” she says of her vocation. Religious life nourished and challenged her to explore higher education. “It’s interesting,” she says, looking back, “the doors that opened.”

After earning a PhD in microbiology from Notre Dame, where she studied immunology of tumors, Sister Katherine decided to go into medicine. She earned her MD from Creighton University in Omaha.

Working in oncology, she came to realize, requires special sensitivity. The very word “cancer” frightens patients. Sister Katherine did her best to be a loving presence. “So many times in the Gospel Christ says, “Peace I give to you. Do not be afraid.”


The diagnosis

She learned to relay a potentially devastating diagnosis with grace. “I would always try to say a good thing. I would say, ‘Well, this is a very aggressive lymphoma, but the good news is it’s very treatable, because this cancer responds well to chemotherapy. Or I would say, “The good news is this tumor is very slow growing, so even though it can’t be cured, you should have a very long life span.”

From there, an oncologist must work with the patient to devise a treatment plan. That delicate collaboration requires good listening from the doctor, Sister Katherine said. “Besides giving compassion, physicians also give counsel. This is an art, for you do not substitute your judgment for that of the patient or family but work in partnership with them to craft the best decision together, after sharing accurate medication knowledge of the situation.”

Humility was another hallmark of her oncology career, a trait that flowed from her deep Catholic faith.  “As the years pass on in my medical career, I have become even more aware of what I cannot do. It is learning to work with the movement of God, a drawing on God’s energy.”

Sister Katherine can still recall patients from 30 years ago – their displays of resilience, their battles between hope and despair, their discussions of life and death. “Some of the conversations were really like a prayer,” she said. “The struggles they go through to help save their lives etch memories in your heart.”

Being a woman of faith proved a vital asset. She once asked a patient, who was a pharmacist, “What are you most afraid of?”

He looked at her and said, “I’m afraid of the other side.”

Sister Katherine responded unequivocally: “There’s a loving God on the other side.”

“Thank you,” he said. “That’s all I need to know.”

Shortly later he died.


Canine therapy

The desire to bring healing and hope led Sister Katherine far beyond the hospital. Over the years, she had three different therapy dogs. They brought comfort simply by being – through the power of touch, through licks and hugs and a warm presence.

Her English Sheepdogs were an especially big hit at Camp Adventure, an American Cancer Society camp at Shelter Island in New York. If a camper were homesick, time with Chester the sheepdog always helped, Sister Katherine said. “We’d bring Chester into whatever cabin [had a homesick camper], and he’d go there and sit by their bed, and they would cry into his fur and then they’d feel better.”

Sister Katherine is now training a rambunctious 5-month-old lab mix named Danny Boy in hopes that he could be a therapy dog. “I think he has the potential, if I stick at it,” she reported. “He loves people, but he doesn’t have a very good work ethic at this point.”

As she helps the puppy, she realizes, he’s helping her. “It’s good for me – you have to walk the dog and take time to relax and have fun with him.”

She elaborated, “As you get older, your drive to find meaning in life becomes more intense. That’s the point I’m at.”

Her ministry is certainly a source of great meaning. She’s also rewarded by living with integrity. “There is true happiness if the things we believe are the same as the things we do.”

About Christina Capecchi

Christina Capecchi is an award-winning journalist from Inver Grove Heights, Minn. She is the author of the nationally syndicated column “Twenty Something,” which appears in more than 50 Catholic newspapers across the country. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, America, The Chicago Tribune, The Star Tribune and The Pioneer Press. She also provides contracted editing and writing services. She holds a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a bachelor’s from Mount Mercy University.