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His Walk of Life
By Felix Carroll (Nov 22, 2011)
Upon the dawn of each day, he sets his pedometer to zero. From there, he walks the walk.
On average, Ronald Sobecks, MD — oncologist/hematologist and author of a new book on God's mercy, human suffering, and cancer — takes 12,000 steps before the day is done. That's roughly five to six miles.
If you were to walk in his shoes, you'd begin at the epicenter of his first vocation. He's a husband and a father living in a suburb of Cleveland. Next, you'd head to the epicenter of his faith. He attends daily Mass and then prays before the Blessed Sacrament at his parish church, St. Albert the Great. Then, you'd be off to the epicenter of his professional vocation, the Cleveland Clinic, where he works to save lives while being a merciful presence for cancer patients and their families whose worlds have been turned upside down by life-threatening disease.
Ten years ago, a case management nurse from Massachusetts, Marie Romagnano, RN, was stirred to action by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to build a network of healthcare professionals who address not only the physical needs of patients but their spiritual needs as well. Dr. Sobecks is the sort of medical professional she had in mind.
Now an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, Healthcare Professionals for Divine Mercy is comprised of more than 3,000 such professionals worldwide. At the group's annual conference in May, Dr. Sobecks was a featured speaker. His book, Divine Mercy, Triumph over Cancer (Marian Press, 2011), has become "a must read for the sick, their families, caregivers, and especially those in the healing arts," says Bryan Thatcher, MD, founder of Eucharistic Apostles of The Divine Mercy.
"When you read his book, you can see how The Divine Mercy message touched his heart," says Marie. "He really has such a strong foundation of faith. Because of his faith, he understands the power and importance of the role spirituality can play in healthcare. He's a good example of the fruit of our apostolate."
His book, Marie adds, "is especially important to healthcare professionals who work long hours under difficult circumstances."
Dr. Sobecks, his pedometer attached to his waist, knows all about that.
'I Know My Time is Coming'
He has walked nearly 3,000 steps by the time he enters Room 10 in the Oncology Unit of the Cleveland Clinic where Namar Fritz is dying.
"He's getting his tank filled back up," jokes Dr. Sobecks good-naturedly as he pulls a chair up beside Fritz (as he prefers to be called). Fritz is receiving his weekly blood transfusions. He and his wife, Marcy, smile, clearly pleased to see Dr. Sobecks.
A familiar face to the Clinic's staff, Fritz had a ministry of visiting the sick and dying there. On his rounds, he would make sure to stop in at the hospital chapel, where during the lunch hour, he would see Dr. Sobecks on his knees praying.
"I'd say to myself, 'When I get sick, I want a doctor like him,'" Fritz says.
Two years ago, Fritz was diagnosed with leukemia. Then, this past February, he suffered a stroke. He and Marcy know he has little time left. Cancerous blood cells are rapidly overrunning healthy blood cells. He wants to die at home.
"I know my time is coming," says Fritz, 74. "Everyone's is. And from all that I've been through, I know one thing: When compared with what our Lord suffered for us, anything I can do would be nothing in comparison, and I want to meet our Lord and thank Him."
Back out in the hallway, Dr. Sobecks charges forward. He often prays the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy for his patients in times like these — when he's on the move, in the corridors, in the stairwells, in the elevators.
"You know," he says, "I learn more from folks like Fritz than I've ever learned from most doctors or any medical book."
The Bells Toll for Him
It was the summer of 1992. Ronald Sobecks was in his final year of medical school. Living in a spartan apartment in the Little Italy section of Cleveland, he would hear the bells of Holy Rosary Catholic Church tolling up on Mayfield Road. One day, he made a visit and prayed before the tabernacle. From his book, he recounts, "As I prayed in the church, an older woman I did not know came to me and gave me a copy of The Divine Mercy Message and Devotion booklet."
He writes, "I didn't know it then, but this little action changed my life forever."
Soon, Dr. Sobecks's spiritual model became St. Faustina, a Polish nun dying a painful death from tuberculosis, who chronicled in her Diary revelations from Jesus, The Divine Mercy. In its call for aching mankind to free itself from the bondage of sin by turning to God's mercy, the Diary of St. Faustina provides what Dr. Sobecks describes as the "definitive source of healing." Coming from a modern-minded, well-educated man of science, that's saying a lot.
But health, after all, is a balance between body and soul.
Suffering, after all, is an inevitable aspect of disease and an opportunity for spiritual growth. Mercy, after all, is what our Lord extends to us and what He demands we extend to others.
At the bedside of the sick and dying, miracles take place. Dr. Sobecks sees this all the time — how health, suffering, and mercy are intertwined to form an eternal cord tethered to heaven. A good caregiver makes the connection.
In his prayers, his practice, his PowerPoint presentations, and now his book, Dr. Sobecks views "cancer" as a metaphor for all disease — physical and spiritual.
Cancer, he notes, arises from an accumulation of abnormal cells. If left untreated, it leads to physical death. Sin is a "spiritual cancer" that operates on a similar principle. If left untreated, sin begins to impair the soul until it leads to spiritual death.
"Cancer patients are often confronted with uncertainties about whether their diseases may be cured," says Dr. Sobecks. "However, when those who have lived in sin repent, trusting in the Divine Mercy and goodness of Almighty God, they can be certain that they will receive complete healing and forgiveness from the Lord. Spiritual cancer is 100 percent curable."
Not every patient he treats is receptive to the idea that meaning can be extracted from suffering. Not every patient grows in virtue as his or her body deteriorates. Not every story appears to have a happy ending.
Dr. Sobecks says the important thing for him is to be present for all his patients, in the way he talks and listens — to be present like the Lord is present in the Blessed Sacrament.
"We can never know God's plans for people," he says, "but we can pray for His will to be done."
A Survivor in More Ways Than One
He's up to 4,500 steps on his pedometer when he makes haste through a hospital corridor to meet with Len Krause.
In 1995, Len felt a lump on his neck and was soon diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Doctors concluded he had a 70 percent chance of dying within three years. He had twins in kindergarten. He couldn't even play catch with them anymore.
Amidst a time of trial and suffering, Len accepted his illness as Christ accepted His cross, says Dr. Sobecks. Aggressive treatment successfully removed the cancer threat until it resurfaced again in 2005. Again, he received treatment. Again, his cancer is in remission. He was in the stands when his twins graduated college. Len, among the dozens of patients featured in Dr. Sobecks's book, considers himself "a cancer survivor and a spiritual survivor." He credits The Divine Mercy, his family, and healthcare team, including Dr. Sobecks for pulling him through.
He wants to buy copies of Dr. Sobecks's book in bulk and anonymously place them in waiting rooms everywhere.
"It's that important," he says.
'I could write volumes'
Room by room, patient by patient, regardless of their religion or lack thereof, Dr. Sobecks says he meets "some of the most tremendous saints, people whom only a few souls will ever know. ... I could write volumes on just about any patient I've ever had."
But he's a busy man. For now, his one volume will have to suffice.
He's up to 10,000 steps by the time he climbs back into his car at the end of the day. Add a couple dozen more, and he's down on his knees once again in the Adoration chapel of his church, where he thanks God for his day and prays for his patients and their families.
Add about a couple dozen more, and he's walking through the door to his home — to his wife, Nancy, a doctor specializing in internal medicine, and their 14-year-old son, Casey.
Dr. Sobecks is certain God placed that older woman in that church on that day in 1992 so he would come to learn about and practice The Divine Mercy message.
"I really believe God wanted to prepare me for my life ahead," he says.
The Lord intended His message to St. Faustina to be shared with the world.
Step by step. Whatever it takes.