He didn’t build a chapel, but eventually he built something even better in her honor
Twenty-five years ago, while in his medical residency, John Bruchalski, MD, FACOG was handing out contraceptives, performing sterilization and abortion procedures, and even creating human embryos through in vitro fertilization at the nation’s premiere Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine. But then, Our Lady of Guadalupe intervened in his life. Not once, but three times. He eventually took the message to heart, and his bustling medical practice – the Tepeyac Family Center in Fairfax, Virginia, now in its 21st year – came about because of what Our Lady invited him to do and to be. Dr. Bruchalski shared his remarkable story with one of his long-time friends and patients, Susan Wills.
SW: Could you describe your first encounter with Our Lady of Guadalupe? Were you deeply religious at the time?
JB: In the summer of 1987, between my internship and residency, a friend invited me to go with him to Mexico City. We were there strictly as tourists, but after one long day, we visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe while Mass was being celebrated. I was standing behind people, watching the Mass. When it ended, I heard a very feminine voice, a very loving, very direct voice saying “Why are you hurting me?” It was spoken directly to me and very penetrating. I looked around but didn’t see anyone near me who looked like an English-speaker. Of course, I was shocked by the experience, but then filed it away in the back of my mind. I had no desire to think about what she may have meant. Back then, she may have been recognized as Patroness of the Unborn, but I certainly didn’t make the connection.
Was I religious then? Not at all. I had put “the myths” behind me by then. I grew up in a great Polish family, all of us were devoted to the Blessed Mother. My parents had dedicated me to Our Lady of Częstochowa. I went to Catholic schools, served as an altar boy and attended a Jesuit college … where I began to lose my faith. During medical school and internship, I bought into the prevailing medical and cultural attitudes that contraceptives and abortion would free women from the shackles of their fertility. Contraception, sterilization and abortion were seen as the solution to poverty. It started with Planned Parenthood, of course, but by the 1980s, the Catholic Church was alone in rejecting that approach.
SW: What impact did that first encounter have on your life?
JB: I wish I could say it changed everything, but it didn’t. I had started attending an Assembly of God church which ran a crisis pregnancy center where I volunteered, but they wanted nothing to do with the Blessed Mother so I didn’t speak about it. After one year of general internship, future OBs do intensive OB practice, including terminations and IVF work. Then, in my first year of residency, I was working in a public health clinic in Portsmouth, Virginia and continued to hand out contraceptives, sterilize women and abort babies.
As part of my infertility elective during second year of residency, I was working at the pioneering Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine, helping create IVF embryos. Jones was on the cutting edge of IVF technology, creating the first American-born “test tube” baby. Left-over embryos were just tossed out. Jones Institute hadn’t yet built the first cryopreservation unit to freeze and store “excess” embryos. While I was there, we even coined the term “pre-embryo” to dehumanize pre-implantation embryos as a way to make what we were doing to them seem more acceptable, and I didn’t have a problem with any of this. We thought we were practicing infertility medicine in a way that was morally superior because, for example, by adjusting hormone levels, we could achieve pregnancy and live birth for women after inserting only 2-4 embryos, while other IVF clinics would insert 8-12 and they were endangering the lives of women and children by getting multiple fetuses and very preterm births.
SW: What finally caused your change of heart about what you were doing throughout residency?
the middle of my second year of residency, in January 1990, I (somewhat
reluctantly) accompanied my mother to Medjugorje. And that’s where I
had a full-out conversion. I did not want to go there. I was sceptical
about the whole apparition thing and did not want to face the
visionaries, but then miraculous things started to happen. I climbed up
the Hill of the Crosses and saw the miracle of the sun. Then a Belgian
woman approached me. She explained that she was on a pilgrimage there
for the pro-life cause and told me Our Lady asked her to give me a
message. I humored her by taking out my notebook and started writing.
Although she could speak only French (as I was surprised to discover the
following day when I tried to introduce her to my mother), I heard her
speaking in English. She told me 40-50 things Our Lady wanted me to hear
along these lines:
Our Lady asked me to tell you that you are doing things that are not producing health and holiness. Return to Confession and to the Table. Johnny, the secret to the renewal of medicine is to practice excellent medicine. See all people including the poor. And follow the teachings of my Son’s Church. See the poor in your daily work and be the best doctor you can be. You have free will, Johnny, but she is inviting you to renew the face of the earth.
And interiorly, I heard Our Lady saying some of the very words she’d said centuries before to Juan Diego, but I could now see that they have great relevance to medical practice: “Johnny, do not fear any illness or vexation, anxiety or pain. Are you not in the crossing of my arms? Are you not underneath this tilma? Johnny, is there anything else you need? All of heaven is alive and available.” I didn’t need anything further to be convinced.
But, just in case I might waver, when we got back to New Jersey after the trip to Medjugorje, a man I didn’t know came up to me and said the same 40-50 things that the Belgian woman had just told me.
When I returned to the Jones Institute, I told my professors that I could no longer dispense contraceptives or sterilize women or perform abortions or create and destroy embryos. They didn’t agree with my newfound “religious scruples,” but were very willing to accommodate them.
SW: Did you also look for ways to become a pro-life adovcate at that time?
JB: I didn’t have to look. Word got out immediately that a doctor who had performed abortions was now pro-life and I was asked to speak at a local college. I happily agreed. Only it turned out to be a debate with Faye Wattleton, then the President of Planned Parenthood, and I was not prepared for such a confrontation. I thought afterward that I’d failed to convince anyone. But in the audience, there happened to be the son of a Catholic OB-GYN who practiced in Maryland and he told me that his father would be glad to offer me a job when I finished residency.
That’s a perfect example of how Our Lady has been guiding me in the
dark all these years. She provided the general outlines and I’ve had to
trust and say “yes,” not knowing clearly how things would work out. I
said “yes” to a college pro-life talk and she arranged for my first job
after residency. Given my unwillingness to violate the teachings of “her
Son’s Church,” I would have had a very tough time getting hired by any
In the meantime, I studied all the various methods of natural family planning and trained in NaPro Technology, which helps couples achieve pregnancy by identifying the underlying cause of their fertility problem and, where possible, removing that obstacle through hormones, medication, surgery, or supplements and diet, whatever is needed to restore health and fertility.
SW: At what point did you decide to leave a solidly Catholic OB-GYN practice in Maryland and start your own practice?
JB: Although we were practicing medicine in a way that was consistent with the teachings of the Church, at least as to the Gospel of Life, there was a part of Our Lady’s message to me that was still missing, a part she had told me about through the Belgian woman in Medjugorje: serving the poor, seeing the poor in my daily work.
I knew I had to do that, too, and so my wife and I started Tepeyac Family Center in 1994, in the basement of our home, after raising $64,000 in grants and loans. Tepeyac means “she who crushes the serpent’s head” and it reminds me daily of why I’m here and what I’m supposed to be doing.
SW: How is Tepeyac Family Center unique? How are you living out the invitation from Our Lady to follow the Gospel of Life and serve the poor?
JB: Well, as our Mission Statement explains, our goal is to provide excellent medical care that respects the consciences of both patients and providers, that serves the poor and upholds the intrinsic value and dignity of every life at every stage.
We also may be unique in taking the time to educate patients about their well-being and to explain life-affirming reproductive health practices that lead to healthy individuals, families and communities. In other words, we don’t push patients out of the exam room after 6 minutes.
We currently have five full-time doctors on staff, as well as a Physician’s Assistant and, of course, dedicated nurses. In 2013, we saw close to 4,000 unique patients in over 15,000 appointments. Tepeyac doctors delivered 648 babies, and 267 of these babies (almost 42 percent) were delivered to poor, underserved and uninsured mothers who were able to receive excellent medical care because of donations to Divine Mercy Care (DMC), Tepeyac’s nonprofit parent company, and to the Moms and Babies Good Start Fund.
We offer classes in natural family planning and had over 100 couples enroll in just the first two years since the program started.
Tepeyac’s perinatal hospice program serves between 10 and 30 families a year, supporting and assisting them in honoring their child’s life until the moment God calls their baby home, whether before or soon after birth.
SW: How did Divine Mercy Care come about?
JB: Catholic healthcare has been struggling for years. The pressure of trying to treat the poor and provide excellent care is incredible because Medicaid doesn’t pay the full cost of seeing patients and certainly doesn’t pay for any overhead. In order to increase the number of poor and uninsured patients we were caring for without going broke, we had to come up with a new, nonprofit model of healthcare and finally did in 2004.
All but three dioceses in the U.S. have Catholic hospitals that often support a group of practitioners who are trying to practice medicine in line with their Catholic faith. The Diocese of Arlington is one of the three that doesn’t have a Catholic hospital. We do have Bishop Loverde, however, and he supported us in building bridges between churches that wanted to live out their pro-life Catholic faith in the community. They donate to DMC and we, in turn, see the needy of their parishes. Arlington’s Catholic Charities and Gabriel Project (its pregnancy resource office) contribute annually and also refer uninsured women to us. Other pro-life Christian churches in the area do as well. Now, 20-40 percent of our patients in any month are “no pay,” self pay on a sliding scale, Medicaid or Medicare patients.
One of the missions of Divine Mercy Care and Tepeyac Family Center is to be a model for others of nonprofit healthcare that can serve the poor. Last year, six healthcare students, including medical residents, nurses and physician assistants, completed their clinical rotations through Tepeyac Family Center, LLC. In the past 12 years, we’ve hosted over 100 students so they can learn how excellent medicine can be done in a nonprofit setting. We hope to inspire the next generation of doctors to see that practicing excellent medicine doesn’t mean you have to leave your conscience at the door and that there’s a way to offer excellent medical care to the poor. In 2011 and 2012, under the sponsorship of Students for Life, I was able to speak to medical students at over 50 U.S. med schools.
But if all that sets us apart is providing NFP instead of contraception and improving fertility through NaPro Tech rather than creating babies in labs, we’re not doing enough.
We’re the innkeepers in Bethlehem. We have this opportunity to see the face of Jesus in the sick, the poor and the newborn. They are the triple face of Christ.