“A Mature Disciple” by Alice Smith in an interview with Geoffrey Kuhlman, MD

WN Geoffrey KuhlmanDr. Kuhlman stood with nine Eucharistic ministers preparing to serve communion at the 9 a.m. Mass. Devoted to serving St. Isaac Joques Church, he chose a ministry that made his heart pump faster. He grasped the communion wafer and placed it carefully in the hands of those who approached. “The body of Christ. The body of Christ. The body of Christ.” After communion, he returned to the front pew. He sat alone.

Geoffrey was not a religious child. How could he, being reared in an agnostic family. His dad was Catholic; his mother and younger brother were not. After his father died, Geoff was seven and too young to make any demands on his religious upbringing. His uncle could have raised him Catholic, but the distance between them made it difficult. “I don’t have anger toward my parents because they didn’t go to church, send me to Bible camp or tell me stories about Jesus at Christmas. I didn’t know what I was missing.”

Geoffrey believes that Jesus had a plan for him. In high school and college, he dated Catholic girls. “God was dropping a few hints, I think.” Curious about Jesus, God the Father and the Holy Spirit, he listened to religious conversations. At Loyola Medical School—run by the Jesuits—he met students, nurses, doctors and professors filled with faith. “How could people with science backgrounds believe in God?” he asked.

He found answers through a girlfriend whom he later married. Still in his twenties, Geoffrey was satisfying his need to know more. When the priest said he would have to raise his children Catholic, he agreed and started the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.

“My compulsive nature led me to this,” but after he was baptized, his busy life and medical career pushed his faith aside. “Gradually, I took comfort in being Catholic. In my early 30s, I wanted more than just going through the motions.” Dr. Kuhlman was neither a cradle Catholic or a convenience Catholic. He did not know what kind of Catholic he was.

In his mid-40s, two things shook his foundation. His partner left suddenly leaving him in charge of a large practice with four doctors, 10 staff and hundreds of patients. Dr. Kuhlman explained that this crisis gave everyone in the practice a chance to leave. Although some stayed, many left, creating an exhausting workload. To maintain stability and to keep the patients well meant 16-hour days and work on Saturdays. Was there any time for God? Geoffrey believes that God hurled him into this crisis to shake some sense into his spiritual void. Through prayer, commitment and good management, he kept the practice and his patients healthy.

Crisis #2 was separation and a divorce. “My wife said she was done with me. I prayed hard for my marriage. My five children didn’t deserve divorce.” With a broken heart, Geoffrey faced a truth-telling session with Jesus. He had always said he was Catholic but basically did what he wanted. “I realized that using Catholicism for convenience is sinful and stupid. I needed a drastic change.”

“Jesus, I am giving you my heart,” were words Geoffrey vowed November 2, 2013, driving children to soccer practice. On an occasion that would transform his life, it did not come with cheers and champagne. It simply occurred within a normal routine for a man with a hectic schedule. “My faith has not faltered since then.”

Accepting Jesus at a time of crisis is one that many experience. It is part of the struggle to stay out of hell and get to heaven. “I had to learn self-forgiveness and let the past roll off my back.” He told me about his spiritual director who provided insight (children are resilient), guidance (take time to grieve your loss) and titles of books to read for pleasure (baseball, psychology) and for faith-building (Sacred Fire by Ronald Rolheiser and Yes, And… by Richard Rohr).

Spending more time at work had to stop. His employees breathed easier and worked harder when Geoffrey took time off. And those five children needed him. Now single, close to 50 years old and in charge of a demanding family medical practice, it is still a challenge to balance work and life.

Immediately, in the horizon I saw Jesus on the cross.

“How do you remain balanced?” I asked. “God doesn’t want me to dwell on those things that took so much energy and discipline. My job is to get to heaven and to help those around me. And, to qualify for heaven is to be great in my faith.”

Geoffrey recalled a Christmas card a neighbor sent him 20 years ago. The written message was, “Jesus is coming soon.” To him this meant think more about Jesus as a gift.

As the interview continued, he told me how he is thinking more about Jesus. “I believe in God’s plan. I don’t question. I’m letting his providence unfold. I am happy. It occurred to me last year that by letting Jesus direct my path, I am able to accept a more global perspective. I want a wider view of what’s in store for me.”

“Have the authors you’ve read made a difference?” Rohr’s book made him reflect and work on the idea of equality. Geoffrey wanted me to know, “It’s hard being a doctor because most people think physicians are above them.”

One of his patients gave him Sacred Fire. “It parallels my life moving from the common practice of faith to a more mature discipleship when we let go and live as God chooses us to live. This translates to knowing that God is with me and guiding me to help my patients. He’s blessed me, but my human traits of holding on to strict routines, hard-to-break habits and being rigid and stubborn still haunt me.” For example, he does not take vacations. Over the summer he took one afternoon to play golf with his son. At the first tee, he thanked God for the opportunity and he felt joy! “I wonder why I can’t feel joy all the time?” Neither of us said the obvious—get out of the office and live a little!

His high school baseball and football coaches taught him work ethics. After seeing sports injuries, he researched kinetics as a field of study at UCLA. He worked as an athletic trainer and observed that sports medicine was on the rise. Support from his mother, a nurse practitioner, and her new husband, a physician, opened more opportunities for him to choose medicine. “My mom told me fascinating stories about her work over dinner. She never pressured me to be a doctor. I found mentors in human science, but science was not my strong suit. I had to really invest myself in science if I was going to be a sports physician.”

After ULCA, he applied to 10 medical schools. Loyola in Chicago kept creeping to the top of the list. Geoffrey is convinced that God led him to Loyola and into medicine. “I wanted to get out of California, try a new place, and Loyola fit every criteria I had in mind.”

“The field of medicine is onerous. It’s what’s behind the scenes that makes it that way. The patients, medical employees, nurses and doctors are not the problem. It’s government regulations, Medicare and insurance.” Help arrived at a time when he doubted staying in the field. He attended a conference, Faith in Practice, developed by Duke University and Adventist Health Systems. It asks practitioners to incorporate faith in patient care. He learned methods of approach, strategies for listening and how to rely on Jesus when he was one on one during an examination. Faith in Practice kept him from quitting.

Now, he believes that connecting through faith with his patients is his chosen path. “Feeling compassion and praying with my patients for their health and asking them about their faith has been the most exciting experience in my medical career. But to be human with them as equals by God, for God, and to have the Holy Spirit in and around us is a bit out of the ordinary for going to work!”

“So, how do you start a typical day?” I ask. “I take an hour to thank Jesus for getting me through the night and give him my thoughts and energy for what’s ahead. I do that most of the time. There are moments—personal and professional—when it’s not that way. That’s when I ask him to show me what I need to know and take that direction. I do pray for everyone and continually express my thanks to God for getting me to where I am.”

Geoffrey continued to discuss his love for Jesus matched with his love for Mary, the Blessed Mother. “I never gave Mary a whole lot of thought until 2008. During a Christ Renews His Parish retreat, I asked a priest for help with my personal crisis. He mentioned Mary and said, ‘talk with her.’” Who? How? When? For the next six to seven years, he paid attention every time he heard her name. In 2015, another priest mentioned Mary. At last Geoffrey recognized that “God is beating me over the head with this Mary thing.” He focused and read St. Louis de Montfort’s works and choose The Feast of the Assumption, August 15, 2016, to seriously consecrate himself to her. “It was an ideal. I learned to pray the rosary, which I do every day, including the mysteries, and I am very comfortable with the rosary now. My intentions were always for Mary to help save my marriage. That was selfish. Now I pray for others, especially my patients. I want to be a good disciple, and I find that enriching my life with all things Mary is bringing me closer to a mature discipleship.”

Dr. Kuhlman’s honesty about his spiritual life is resulting in peace. “I feel peaceful. If I am scared, I dig deeper to open my heart to God’s plan. I am pretty serious about my life, but today I think Jesus is laughing at me and beating me up! What’s he want from me anyway?”

As our interview ended, his last words may have answered his question, “I think God getting through to me is a miracle. Earlier you asked if I believe in miracles. I want to bring up Padre Pio. I am enamored with his works. His abilities to be in two places at once, to predict events and perform miracles bears clear witness to me of divine intervention. So, yes, I believe in miracles. I even have a cat that was born with paw problems. I named him Pio. The way my life has changed is drastically different. I am richer in my faith, and my spiritual maturity is exciting.”

His hands folded and resting on the table, leaning in toward me, he let me know how Jesus appeared to him. “The most amazing thing happened last March running my second marathon. Six months prior I ran my first marathon faster than I ever expected I could. I enjoy running not only for the fitness, but for the solitude and time with Jesus. I started my second marathon with high aspirations of a spectacular race time. I was physically fit, loaded with carbohydrates and feeling ready to go. After a few miles, I ran down some steep hills and that made my legs ache like never before. I limped for the next 21 miles. I wanted joy from this race, but I found misery. With 5 miles to go I stopped to rest and looked up to the sky. ‘Well, God, I am obviously not meeting my goals for this run. Am I blind? What do you want me to get from this experience?’ Immediately, in the horizon I saw Jesus on the cross. I realized at that moment, even though I spend a lot of time in prayer and try to honor God with my life and to appreciate the humility he is forcing me to accept, I do not routinely contemplate Jesus’ deep love and sacrifice for me and the rest of the world by dying on the cross. Since that moment, the crucifix on my neck has a new and deeper meaning. I wear it not for show but to remember, honor and do my best to glorify him. I hope and pray to serve him humbly and capably in everything I do.”

Note from Alice: Geoffrey is part of the Adventist Health System, noted for “extending the healing ministry of Christ.” Large paintings of Jesus and murals depicting the Creation greet you as you enter their hospitals. Having a feeling of comfort and joy to be in the hospital is a strange reaction, but for me it is soothing. It makes being his patient a blessing.

Dr. Kuhlman is in perfect health with the Lord. Reading authors Rolheiser and Rohr places a new challenge on his self-imposed demand to be a better disciple of Christ. Wouldn’t you want a doctor with this kind of love for his patients and for Jesus? Lucky me! He’s been my doctor for many years.

Biblical Note: And hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:17 (NIV)

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