The Voice: Winter 2003

The Voice

VandeKieft teaches while he practices medicine

by Sonya Jongsma Knauss

Luke, Emily, Gregg, Lynette, and Joel VandeKieft love Washington's great outdoors. Gregg VandeKieft is one Dordt College graduate who found a great way to turn his “English major wanna-be” status into a vocation he not only enjoys but excels in.VandeKieft remembers going through a crisis during his sophomore year at Dordt over whether he should major in English and philosophy or continue on his pre-med track. Calvin College’s Stanley Wiersma had a one-year visiting professorship at Dordt College that year, and he gave VandeKieft advice that influenced what he’s doing today—working as a physician-educator at a teaching hospital in Washington.

“He told me, ‘If everyone interested in the humanities stays in the humanities, we’ll never overcome what T.S. Elliot called the disassociation of sensibility,’ and that has stayed with me,” VandeKieft says. He stuck with his pre-med program, but continued taking the humanities classes he enjoyed so much.

After graduating from Dordt in 1983, VandeKieft completed medical school at the University of Iowa, and then did a residency in Phoenix, Arizona, where he received Phoenix Baptist Hospital’s first annual “Humanity in Medicine Award” in 1990. He joined a private family practice in Mt.Vernon, Washington. During these years, he and his wife, Lynette, also had three children.

But the “academic bug was working on me,” he says. He found himself wanting to return to school and find a way to incorporate his humanities interests into his medical practice. Suddenly God opened up an opportunity for him to do just that. One of his partners in the practice had a brother who was a dean at Michigan State University’s medical school. He offered VandeKieft a full-time faculty position while he pursued an interdisciplinary master’s degree in health and the humanities.

While he was at MSU, VandeKieft realized that medical ethics, a budding field, fit his interests perfectly. He wrote a thesis focused on narrative ethics, which he describes as “the story in which the ethical dilemma is embedded,” an area that allowed him to combine both his literature and philosophy interests with his medical practice and experience.

VandeKieft enjoyed teaching at MSU, and received two Teacher-Scholar awards while on faculty there. He was approached about an assistant dean position at the end of his four-year commitment to the school. However, he and Lynette found themselves missing family and friends, as well as the backpacking and skiing they had grown to love. They were drawn back to the west coast.

When VandeKieft began looking for a job position, he found doors opening again. After a conversation with his wife about moving back west, he went online and found a recently-posted position in Olympia, Washington. That’s where he is now; they moved in February, 2002.

VandeKieft currently serves on faculty at a teaching hospital, Providence St. Peter, the main hospital between Portland and Tacoma. The hospital serves a five-county area, about 250,000 people. He is one of seven full-time faculty, and he sees patients, directly supervises family practice residents, and has various teaching responsibilities.

He appreciates working for a Catholic hospital, whose mission statement is lived out in its work: “extending the healing love of Jesus Christ to the poor and vulnerable.”

But his close work with impoverished patients has its challenges. For one thing, the inadequacy of the United States health care system really hits home. “A lot of our patients, if they had better mental health care or access to basic health care, their health would not deteriorate.

” While Canada and all of Europe offer health care to all citizens, the poor and uninsured in the U.S. have no way to pay for care. “With all the money our society spends on health care, we could easily provide some level of basic care for everyone,” VandeKieft says.

Along with frustration with the system, VandeKieft says he and residents have to fight cynicism and “compassion fatigue” which happens when “you see the same guy who OD’d two times before come in again for the same thing… you need to look past the behavior choice and help the person.”

His ability to see people as image-bearers of Christ has implications in other areas of his work as well. VandeKieft has been part of a small group of people at the hospital to form a Resident Wellness Panel, a group to address workforce issues for residents.

“We put our own trainees through things we would never recommend our patients do,” he says, referring to the length of shifts and number of hours residents are expected to work.

VandeKieft is also the Medical Director for Hospice and Palliative Care at Providence St. Peter, which means he oversees end-of-life care for dying patients. He says it’s important to him to see that patients receive high quality medical care in their final days.

He finds that while he continues to see how well Dordt College prepared him for a wide range of activities, he has also developed a broader conception of how God is manifested in creation than he had as a college student.

“This has deepened my respect for and comfort with other cultures and faith traditions,” he explains about his current work. “I meet my patients where they are at—rather than conforming them to my expectations.”

From his work with residents, to his summer trips to work with a Nicaraguan doctor, to the many state panels and advisory committees he has been appointed to and served on, Dordt’s service orientation has had a lasting impact on how he does things. “At Dordt it was clear that service doesn’t just mean doing a dollop of serving here or there, but making it part of your daily life.” He tries to live that goal each day.