by Tracey Primrose
February 5, 2014 — In the early 1960s, the dinner table at Jesuit Father Myles Sheehan’s boyhood home in Marshfield, Mass., must have been lively. His physician dad would quiz five-year-old Myles about real world medical ethics while his mom discussed the latest work of the writer and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. More than a half century later, Fr. Sheehan is still fascinated by the intersection of medicine and faith, dual passions that have helped shape his vocation to the Society of Jesus.
When Fr. Sheehan was a boy, a wise and caring TV doctor, Marcus Welby, was a hit, but in real life, that practitioner was John Sheehan. Fr. Sheehan recalls, “My dad would spend a lot of time with people and made sure they didn’t feel alone, and he was also good about not taking money from people who didn’t have any to give. So, the fishermen would sometimes leave fish or a lobster in a pot at the back door.”
While Fr. Sheehan always knew he wanted to be a doctor like his dad, he was also interested in becoming a priest. His parents encouraged him, though, to experience life before making such a big decision, so rather than attend a Catholic college, Fr. Sheehan headed to Dartmouth. At least part of the reason was the family’s love of skiing and the beautiful countryside surrounding Hanover, N.H.
When Fr. Sheehan was still an undergrad, Jesuit Father Joseph Devlin came to Dartmouth as an assistant chaplain. Fr. Sheehan remembers, “Joe really showed me a different side of what it meant to believe in Jesus and to have a spiritual life, and he helped me come alive in so many ways.” With a renewed interest in a vocation, Fr. Sheehan met with a Jesuit vocation director, but he was surprised when he was advised, “If you want to be a doctor, go be the very best doctor you can be and if God is still calling you, he’ll bug you later on.”
God was persistent, bugging Fr. Sheehan all through Dartmouth Medical School and his internship and residency in internal medicine at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. There, he discovered a deep connection with geriatric and dying patients, saying, “I found in their frailty something precious. I learned from my parents that the people who are the most vulnerable are where you’ll find God.” Following his residency at Beth Israel, Fr. Sheehan entered the Society of Jesus in 1985. “I very much wanted to be a Jesuit who happened to be a doctor, and I wasn’t interested in a hyphenated vocation.”
After the novitiate, Fr. Sheehan headed to Loyola University Chicago for a master’s degree in philosophy and health care ethics. Later, he served as a fellow at Harvard Medical School’s Geriatric Program and earned a Master of Divinity degree from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Massachusetts. After ordination in 1994, he returned to Chicago’s Loyola Medical Center. There he served briefly as director of the section of internal medicine and became senior associate dean of the medical school in 2000. Between 2000 and 2009, Father Sheehan became a professor of medicine, was named the Ralph Leischner Professor of Medical Education and served as director of the Leischner Institute for Medical Education. During this time, he continued his practice as a geriatric physician and was actively involved in teaching and developing curricula for improving palliative care, with a focus on Catholic hospitals in the U.S.
But his passion has always been about the care of older patients with a special regard for those coming to the end of their lives. “Preparing for the end of life is something we all need to do, and that means we provide the best possible care to allow people to have a natural death in as peaceful a way as possible.” And he feels gratified that he’s been able to protect some patients from overly aggressive medical intervention, allowing them to die peacefully, with the sacraments. His message: “I’m not going to abandon you to the experience of your illness. I’m going to be there for you, I’m not going to leave you alone.” Jesuit Father Myles Sheehan, the provincial of the New England Province Jesuits and a former physician and professor, has always been fascinated by the intersection of medicine and faith. According to Fr. Sheehan, caring for the elderly fits perfectly with his Jesuit vocation because it’s a social justice issue that squarely addresses a group of people who are too often forgotten.
And then, there’s humor, a tool Fr. Sheehan uses often and disarmingly to acknowledge the darkness of situations while also breaking the ice. Several years back, when called to a close friend’s deathbed to provide last rites, he arrived on the doorstep and asked, “Which way to the exorcism?” The patient smiled, the family members laughed and the sadness was temporarily lifted.
When asked to serve as provincial of the New England Province Jesuits, Dr. Sheehan hung up his lab coat in 2009, although that hasn’t stopped friends, relatives and other Jesuits from seeking medical advice. Although he doesn’t diagnose anymore, he is still a prolific reader of scientific journals, a habit he picked up in high school when he and his dad read the New England Journal of Medicine together. Acknowledging that it wasn’t a very common pastime for a high school kid, Fr. Sheehan says, “Nerds rule.”