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Dr. Bruchalski, a giver-of-life

First slide

What is the weight of a human life?

The scale in the delivery room was supposed to tell Dr. John Bruchalski. Would the baby, born prematurely to a mother who didn't want it, weigh less than 500 grams and therefore be classified as "medical waste"? Or would the numbers read ever-so-slightly higher, declaring the baby "viable"?

As the scale tipped to 505 grams, Bruchalski hit the button to elicit the aid of nursery doctors.

That moment and the ones that followed would become part of three pivotal experiences - two included the not-so-subtle prodding of Mary - that led Bruchalski to abandon his work in abortions and artificial fertility methods and instead build a medical practice that supports patients holistically. Health care for women, he realized, is not about fertility rights; it's about relationships.

Breaking the 'chains of fertility'

Bruchalski always knew he wanted to be a healer. "I wanted to care for people, I wanted to meet their needs," he said during a recent interview in his Fairfax office. At 54, white has begun to creep into the gray beard that frames his frequent smile. Bruchalski has a gentle manner and a voice to match.

Raised in a Polish Catholic family in northern New Jersey, he was dedicated to Mary as a young child and loved saying the rosary, even as he slowly abandoned his faith.

"I've always had a soft spot in my heart for the mother of God," he said.

Bruchalski attended Catholic schools, but he recalls the catechesis of the 1960s and '70s as "a little relativistic." As a high schooler asking big questions about life, the "priests didn't seem very happy and didn't have the answers," said Bruchalski.

In college, he began to see his female friends' "struggle with fertility" as something to be solved, he said. "I saw everything in terms of rights. I thought I needed to liberate women from the chains of their fertility if I was going to go into medicine."

So, after graduating from the University of South Alabama College of Medicine in Mobile, Bruchalski completed his residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Eastern Virginia Medical Center and the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Norfolk. The Jones Institute created the first American "test-tube baby," one created through in vitro fertilization, in 1981.

The institute was on the cutting edge of contraceptive research and development, and Bruchalski was learning how to build embryos and destroy and prevent pregnancies.

Thinking in terms of how to control a woman's fertility forces you to "see a woman's body as much like a machine and its parts," which can be manipulated as desired, Bruchalski said.

He did feel some growing doubts about his work. While he was trying to alleviate suffering, he was seeing an increasing number of sexually transmitted diseases and a sense of brokenness in his patients.

A pierced heart

As Bruchalski grappled with his desire to help women and the deep-down feeling something was wrong, he also struggled to push aside a memory. In between medical school and his residency, he'd gone with a friend to Mexico City and visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, located on Tepeyac Hill and the site where Our Lady appeared in 1531 to St. Juan Diego.

There, in front of the image on the tilma, or cloak, of St. Juan Diego, he heard a voice.

"A very clear American voice said, 'Why are you hurting me?'" Bruchalski recalled. "I heard it clearly, distinctly."

Not ready to take in what it all meant, he told himself, "I can't deal with this."

Yet he couldn't shake the feeling that something was lacking in his life and work. He began attending an Assembly of God church and volunteering at its crisis pregnancy center. "Meanwhile, I'm going back to my residency and I'm terminating pregnancies," Bruchalski said. "It became a little schizophrenic."

Around that time he delivered the baby that weighed 505 grams. Following the delivery (the baby did not survive), a neonatologist who'd never spoken to him before came up and said: "I've seen you with your patients. On one hand, you take such good care of them, and on the other hand, when they don't want the baby, you give me garbage. These are children, and they deserve better."

The words pierced his heart.

The Catholic woman added, "Oh, and by the way, I just got back from a place called Medjugorje. I think you'd love it."

Medjugorje, located in Bosnia-Herzegovina, is a site where reported Marian apparitions draw pilgrims from around the world. The Vatican has not yet recognized the alleged apparitions, but has said Catholics are free to pray there.

Just two days after the unsettling interaction, Bruchalski received a call from his mother asking if he wanted to go on a winter vacation to Yugoslavia, including a trip to Medjugorje.

At Medjugorje, a young woman from a Belgium pro-life group approached him and said, "I have some messages for you from the Blessed Mother. You're a doctor, and you're supposed to help. Open up your diary."

"Excuse me? Are you crazy?" asked Bruchalski.

But she persisted, and he finally relented, jotting down notes as she spoke.

"In health care, practice excellent medicine, see the poor daily and follow the teachings of my Son's church," the woman said. "If you can do those three things, you will help my Son renew the face of the earth."

"All of a sudden, the scales came off my eyes," Bruchalski said. "I began to cry. I started telling Jesus I was sorry about everything I'd done. I realized that what I'd done up to that point was not helping people. I was compounding their problems."

The words scribbled that day into his diary, which he still has, soon became lived acts.

Medicine as mercy

Returning to the states, Bruchalski told his boss he could no longer perform abortions, in vitro fertilizations or prescribe contraception.

He read the works of St. Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun who promoted devotion to the Divine Mercy, and St. John Paul's writings on the theology of the body. Eventually, he returned to the Catholic Church.

Bruchalski, now a longtime parishioner of St. Joseph Church in Herndon, came to understand all the things that were missing in his previous efforts to help women.

"I saw the science behind (natural family planning) and the practical reasons why our church teaches certain things," he said. "They weren't laws anymore, they were actually ways of living a full life."

In order to fulfill the call to "see the poor daily," Bruchalski and his wife, Carolyn, started Tepeyac Family Center in their basement 20 years ago. Their goal was to establish an affordable obstetrical and gynecological facility that combined excellent medicine with the healing presence of Jesus, reaching out especially to those in crisis pregnancies and to the poor.

"Seeing the poor is the pumice, it's the friction that keeps you honest in life," he said. "Once you stop seeing the poor, medicine becomes a commodity."

Located in Fairfax, the nonprofit has five doctors and delivered close to 700 babies this year. At least 50 percent of patients are not Catholic.

"We don't proselytize," said Bruchalski. You meet people where they are, and by your example, witness and joy, you radiate the beauty of the faith, he said.

In the late 1990s, Bruchalski founded Divine Mercy Care, which serves as an umbrella organization to support Tepeyac.

Bruchalski now is an expert on NFP, gives countless talks and has received multiple awards, including the People of Life Award from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2007.

Although he's had his own share of health problems, including cancer 17 years ago, he quickly brushes them off, preferring to keep the focus on his patients.

Bruchalski speaks lovingly about his faith, but the best expression of it is in his medical practice and his belief that each life is beyond measure - or weight - and that he is one small instrument of healing.

"Medicine is an act of mercy, and health care is based on relationships," said Bruchalski. "Only when you rest in Jesus are you truly healthy. Jesus is the Divine Physician. When you can abide in the heart of Christ and have a relationship with Him, you're healthy - body, soul and spirit."

Find out more

To learn more about Tepeyac Family Center, go here.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014