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An alumnus’ singular calling to medicine and ministry

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2013 - Winter


“Go to church this Sunday” was the prescription that Benjamin R. Doolittle, M.Div. ’94, M.D. ’97, wrote for a patient addicted to heroin. “Bring the church bulletin to our next appointment,” he said.

The patient had wanted to attend church but feared that the congregation would judge her. So Doolittle gave her the little push he knew she needed. She came to the next appointment, bulletin in hand, glad she had gone. “The cure for addiction is never a pill,” said Doolittle, associate professor of medicine and of pediatrics at the School of Medicine. A person’s spirit must be renewed, their self-esteem rebuilt, and their shame released. “Medicine is this fusion of science and emotion and spirituality. As physicians we are more than technicians.”

Though he wears a white coat on weekdays and a black robe on Sundays, he sees these two roles as “one singular call.”

“I don’t see myself as a physician during the week and a minister on the weekend—there’s just me,” he said.

Ever since Doolittle felt “the call” in his senior year at Yale College, where he studied biology and philosophy, he knew he wanted to pursue both medicine and the ministry. He was attracted to the “fix-it mentality” in medicine, but his volunteer work at a New Haven soup kitchen and a children’s theater program led to a love for community outreach that he could harness as a minister. “What’s so great about medicine is the stories and the relationship building that happen, and that very much feels like a ministry,” he said.

He enrolled in divinity school first to get his “spiritual life squared away,” knowing that once he began medical school it would be tough to take a break. The seeds of his spirituality had been planted while growing up in Schenectady, N.Y., where he had attended a Protestant church; but it had been truly awakened during a gap year in Paris between high school and college. Doolittle spent many lonely afternoons wandering the streets and sitting inside beautiful cathedrals. “I realized that I needed other emotional and spiritual resources for a sense of peace and happiness because I didn’t have the familiar anchors of my home,” he said. “Slowly, a sense of faith and prayer life became real to me.”

In Doolittle’s first year of divinity school, one of the deans asked him to preach a few sermons for an inner-city church that was between ministers. He had no prior preaching experience; however, Pilgrim Congregational Church was on the verge of closing and couldn’t afford a pastor. Why else would they take a medical student for a minister? Doolittle joked. Or even worse: a resident.

The night before that first Sunday he borrowed a black robe and drank nearly a gallon of coffee to stay up writing the sermon. He took a scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in which the title characters are shooting at a target, and related it to faith: “If you follow your instincts and heart, instead of overthinking, you will hit the target.” The congregation asked him to preach the next Sunday, and every Sunday all through his medical school days. “I would have to write my sermons on hospital note paper,” he said.

Doolittle often told the stories of the wards from the pulpit; conversely, in the hospital he offers his patients spiritual counsel. And theological and medical problems may overlap and become indistinguishable. A patient with HIV, certain she was going to die, turned to faith. When her health started to improve, she stopped taking her medications, convinced that God had healed her. Her viral load crept up and her T-cell population diminished. Doolittle urged her to resume her medications, and now she sees medicine not as separate from her faith but as “a gift from God.”

Doolittle continues in his dual roles. On the medical school faculty he is the program director of the Combined Internal Medicine and Pediatrics residency program. As the minister of social action at South Church in New Britain, he provides support for the church’s outreach programs, much like the work he did as president of the cabinet of Dwight Hall as an undergraduate. He also officiates at the weddings of students and faculty. This August he officiated at the wedding of two recent graduates, Matthew Vestal, M.D.’11, and Heather Speller, M.D.’11, at a vineyard in Stonington, Conn.