| This is the 198th story of Our Life Logs |
I have been a family physician for 35 years. One would think that as a doctor I must have lived a life filled with respect, prestige, and perhaps, some wealth too. While my work has brought peace to my soul and the wonderful feeling of helping others has always been present, much of my career was a winding road full of struggles. Why, you may ask? Because I choose to stand up for what I believe in. As a faithful Catholic, I vowed to stay true to my beliefs which led to a lot of disagreements and sometimes, losing respect and even losing my job. There were several opportunities where it would have been easier to leave the church in order to advance my career or even just to have less stress. In the end, the well-being of my patients kept me rooted in my faith and the journey I took on.
I was born in Tempe, Arizona in 1960, as the second youngest of seven kids. My parents were prominent members of our local Catholic church, which, I found out later, was actually built on land they had donated. Our family lived on a farm outside of the city, and my dad supplied the school I attended with their entire milk supply for their lunch program.
As I grew up, I became more invested in my faith. By 17, I was often having moral discussions with my parents, and from them, I molded my own opinions. Mom always wanted to know why she believed what she believed, while Dad trusted his gut instincts. I like to think that I curated a mixture of the two.
I made the choice to attend medical school when I was 19 after Mr. Walters, a family friend, encouraged me to pray about my future. When I did, Creighton College’s School of Medicine in Omaha, Nebraska made the most sense. In 1982, at age 21, I passed my MCAT and started my journey of medical studies right afterwards.
There, I met the woman of my dreams. Kathleen was everything I desired in a wife—thrifty, adventurous, steady, smart, and of course, Catholic. Life moved in a hurry. We got married only a few years after we met, and it was the best day of my life.
Not long after our wedding, I found a pamphlet in the back of our church that dramatically altered the course of my life. The pamphlet talked about Natural Family Planning (NFP), which claimed that, through basic data analysis in the home, couples using the method could naturally pinpoint times of fertility to achieve or avoid pregnancy. The success of the method was said to be 90% accurate, making contraception unnecessary. I shook my head. These were pretty bold claims!
Skeptical, I was interested in knowing who the founder of the method was. I found out he lived in St. Louis, so I called him up and asked if there was anyone nearby in Omaha that could teach my wife and me. There was! It turned out that one of my professors, an OBGYN named Dr. Hilgers, could.
My skepticism faded away as Kathleen and I tested out NFP ourselves. We found each claim to be authentic. Not only did the method help us plan our family, I also noticed how it strengthened our marriage. The process demanded a level of communication that taught us to have respect for our bodies while making our sexuality fun and rewarding.
Sold on NFP, I became a licensed medical consultant for the program in my fourth year of medical school.
After graduation, I interviewed at 11 different programs in search of the perfect place to begin my residency. Kathleen and I chose Milwaukee, Wisconsin, feeling hopeful and optimistic that everything would fall into place.
I had made my stance on NFP clear to the director and assistant director. I told them that while this choice was rooted in my faith, its outcomes were undeniably authentic. Turns out, the assistant director did not agree with it and claimed he had never run into a doctor who let their faith interfere with their career. I was frustrated by the intolerance, but as a new doctor, all I could do was hold my head high. In time, I figured, the disagreement would go away.
Unfortunately, it didn’t. About three months into my residency, the chief resident called me into her office to comment on the inordinately large number of families using NFP. I explained that as a conscientious OBGYN resident, I told my patients about the risks and benefits of each option, from abstinence to abortion. Many of my patients had just preferred NFP because of the lack of medical side effects, high effectiveness, and the good communication it fostered within their relationships.
Nevertheless, the practice believed that I was being biased and misinforming patients. They conducted exit-interviews with my patients, and while the majority backed up my claims, there was one slip-up that was blown way out of proportion. They found that I had informed that patient about condoms, but didn’t discuss a new barrier and spermicidal device that really wasn’t even in wide use at the time. The practice didn’t need to press further. Eight months later, despite acing the in-service exam, all the residents got together one evening and presented me with a unanimous decision: they could not work with me.
I felt powerless, knowing that I had done nothing wrong. But that didn’t seem to matter at the time. My faith was an inconvenience they didn’t want to deal with.
My choice was very clear. I knew I had a responsibility to provide for my family but I also knew I needed to help get them to heaven. If I was to remain a practicing Catholic, I needed to be “all in,” so to speak.
And so, I left.
Thankfully, a friend knew a director of family medicine who had an opening nearby in Waukesha, Wisconsin. It was an answer to prayer, and the program made a way for me to finish my residency in a couple of years.
With five children by then and a supportive wife, I decided to open my own solo family practice in Ivanhoe, Minnesota as a new doctor at a Catholic hospital, a short road trip away from Waukesha. Maybe out of ignorance or blind faith, we set out. I knew from my experiences in residency that people needed what I had to offer. My mom’s words about small towns rang in my head, “In an agrarian society, the doctor needn’t fear because they can always pay in chickens or hogs.” I thought to myself, “I like chickens, I like hogs!” I really wasn’t worried about them paying me.
We had never operated a sole practice before, so we figured everything out on the fly. Kathleen helped me a lot on the finance side, and it turned out to be quite a successful practice. Meanwhile, NFP continued to aid our marriage and we continued to grow our family. Life felt blissful for a good few years.
Around 2003, we moved again, this time to Springfield, Minnesota where I accepted a position in order to better provide for my family. I was still practicing my faith but in a new environment. The peace of life went on for the next 10 years, and we had four more children during this time.
Then, at work, I began to see that the forces of business reached far into the practice of medicine, making it more difficult for physicians like myself to follow their conscience, especially with money on the line. Unwilling to put in IUDs for $900 apiece and take them out for $150 apiece, I was forced to realize the potential effect of practicing my faith on the bottom line. With this awareness, I was a bit more prepared when my employer, the hospital, called me into their office. They gave me the option of quitting before they fired me for “lack of production.”
I quit on the spot.
Any decision to leave a familiar place does not come easy. Our move meant our family would have to go through change, which inevitably brought about confusion and anxiety. So, when I quit, I obviously did not do it for me. I did it for the simple peace that was to come from walking in faith.
Luckily, God took care of my family again, moving us close by to a town called Sleepy Eye that needed a good, Catholic doctor for their community in 2003. I guess God wasn’t done using me quite yet. After I joined their practice, I settled in, finally finding a place where I could practice medicine and my faith. This has been my home for the past 15 years, and I’ve watched my children grow into adults as I grew closer to my wonderful wife.
Looking back on my 35 years of medical practice, I can say that the times of adversity were painful. In retrospect, however, I appreciate them because they taught me confidence in what I believed and the reminder to stay faithful to my patients.
As a young doctor I remember being anxious about everything I could lose. I would say that now I have peace knowing that this is a journey and that it is my job as a Catholic to persevere in my faith even through trials. There are times of doubt and then I wonder, how can I explain myself better to this or that client and if they don’t understand, then what? I really do have peace in the end when I keep following my beliefs.
This is the story of Dr. James Joyce
A fervent Catholic and skilled physician, Dr. Joyce went into medicine with the desire to serve to the best of his ability and knowledge. Trained in a natural family planning method formulated by Catholic doctors and highly sought after, he was able to provide unique insight into the conversation of fertility but was punished for promoting it. As a direct result of practicing his faith, he lost respect, relationships and careers. Leaning on a supportive wife and the Catholic Church, he rebounded from these losses and moved forward to better opportunities. In his 35 years of treating infertility, 98% of his patients have achieved pregnancy. For that, he gives God all the credit. Dr. Joyce currently serves at Sleepy Eye Medical Center as a family physician. When he isn’t in the clinic, he can be found canoeing, kayaking and traveling to visit his ten children and four grandchildren who largely reside out of state.
This story first touched our hearts on October 19, 2018.