Dr. Abraham Nussbaum shares perspective on health care and faith

Regis University’s Rueckert-Hartman College for Health Professions (RHCHP) and the offices of Mission and Ministry co-hosted an event on the evening of Oct. 18 with Denver psychiatrist and RHCHP advisory board member Dr. Abraham Nussbaum who spoke to students, faculty and staff about his profession and his life of faith. 

Nussbaum, who grew up in Colorado, and is now the chief education officer for Denver Health, shared personal and professional stories about his medical career, faith and family life. Much of the conversation with the audience centered around the stories that shaped his life and how those experiences could help others think about having more meaning and purpose in the kind of life they want to live. Nussbaum has a strong faith which has often helped him in his vocation over the years. As a doctor, teacher, husband and father he provided food for thought especially for students who were planning to go into the health care field.

“One way is to think about what we're called to as Catholics and when I spoke to the students, I talked about how one of my favorite quotes is 'why give your labor for that which is not bread’, meaning that you have one life as far as we know. And you ought to spend your labor on something that feeds you and feeds other people, both the people you know, and the people you don’t know. We are called outside our family and friends, to the strangers who are in need,” Nussbaum said.

“As a doctor, I can also just tell you that there's all sorts of evidence that people who have a sense of purpose and meaning live richer, fuller lives, and find more purpose in their work. So, it helps to think about if you have the absolute privilege to do so. Ask yourself: Why you do what you're doing?”

Nussbaum once considered earning a Ph.D. rather than becoming a medical doctor. His wife helped him realize he needed to focus on one trajectory at the time. He’s held many educational degrees but received a bachelor’s in religious studies and English literature from Swarthmore College, a master’s in theological studies from Duke University and attended medical school at the University of North Carolina. He was also part of the Teaching Scholars Program at CU School of Medicine and Faculty Scholars Program in Medicine and Religion at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. Nussbaum has a wealth of experience in both the classroom and clinical side.

Michael Baxter, Ph.D., Director of Catholic Studies and professor wanted to bring in Dr. Nussbaum to help students better understand the correlation between their faith and spiritual life and the work they are pursuing and the connection between the two.

“Dr. Nussbaum is that rare breed of health professional who is thoroughly competent in what he does, yet critical and self-reflective about how and why he does what he does. Not only is he a good doctor; he’s also trained theologically to know where goodness originates, how it is lost, and how we can recover it in our lives and work. This is what he brought to us in his talk. He’s a gift to us at Regis for showing us the way to deepen our commitment to the task, as Ignatius of Loyola often put it, of "helping souls."

One topic that came up during his conversation that was relevant to students, faculty and staff is burnout and the complexity of it.

“One of the things as a psychiatrist is that we know burnout has a very wide prevalence, especially in certain specialties and professions. And one of the challenges is something with that wide of a prevalence is it's a little hard to know what it means…in some fields like nurses, it will be 30 to 90 percent. That's a wide range. The first thing I'd say is that burnout can mean lots of different things. The second thing I'd say is that anytime that if you're feeling burnout, it's a good time to think about talking to other people and that can be as simple as talking to a trusted friend, a mentor, a family member, priest or other faith leader,” Nussbaum said.

He suggested that for people experiencing burnout, it might be helpful to go a little deeper within themselves. “People need to think about the question of…what is this burnout telling me? Is this burnout telling me I need to make a change in my life, in my work, is this burnout telling me that I need professional help that I need to talk to somebody for psychotherapy for spiritual counseling for medication? I think what I would say to most people is burnout is something they should listen to, and then try to figure out exactly what it means. Because it's such a broad phenomenon.”

Linda Osterlund, Ph.D., Academic Dean of Rueckert-Hartman College for Health Professions, said the wisdom he shared was valuable for not only students but faculty and staff as well.

“Dr. Nussbaum shared the value of finding your purpose and meaning in life, especially in healthcare professions, serving the whole person. I appreciated his perspective on workforce burnout – if you are serving for and with others it certainly fuels your passion and fills your cup to keep going!”

Nussbaum recognizes that his faith also plays a huge role in how he lives his day-to-day life both in his profession as a doctor but in his personal life and how he interacts with everyone.

“I'm privileged to work at Denver Health and work in a social safety net system, which is part of my way of living out being Catholic. We're continuing to try to figure out how to do better and better at taking care of people who are marginalized. And then training the next generation to do that as well.”

Nussbaum said one thing that excites him is knowing that there are many young people who are interested in doing this work today and doing it better than he and his colleagues did in the past. He said he chooses to view that as a great opportunity.

“They're asking a lot of questions about why the world is the way it is. And if it can be better, and I welcome those questions. At Denver Health, we're trying to build interprofessional health education programs that really help to transform the world by thinking about how we can care for the most vulnerable and marginalized in our community.”