As a child with a vivid and rich Catholic imagination, I was both fascinated and repelled by the notion of martyrdom. Over the years I have often been drawn in prayer to ponder the meaning of Jn 15:13: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friend.” Does it mean that the Christian must embrace martyrdom out of love for Christ? Are we called to pour out our lives in far-off lands, to labor among the destitute in the world’s slums? Or do the words of the Gospel call us to give ourselves wholeheartedly in-stead to family, co-workers and parishioners? Ultimately, of course, there are many ways to lay down one’s life. Perhaps no one has embodied this for me more than my friend and colleague, Dr. Mary Christine Reyelt, who passed away last year.
We met in the summer of 1988 at a gathering of what was later to become the National Catholic AIDS Network. Two of the times Reyelt spoke at the meeting remain fixed in my memory. First, she pointed out that the epidemic we faced was not only a gay disease. Based on her experience in northern New Jersey, where the disease was rapidly spreading, AIDS affected women and men, gay and straight, citizen and immigrant. Persons of color, the poor and the disenfranchised were increasingly being diagnosed with the disease, and precisely for this reason, she noted, the church should extend its healing ministry to the AIDS community.
Reyelt’s second point concerned what was then a widely held fear, even among health care professionals, that one might inadvertently receive a needle stick, and thus fall prey to AIDS. With her trademark humor, Reyelt observed that statistically she stood a greater chance of being killed by a car on the New Jersey Turnpike than of acquiring H.I.V. from a needle stick. But she confessed, presciently, that the transmission of hepatitis frightened her far more, because of its prevalence among the population she treated.
Mary Christine Reyelt died on June 1, 2008 because she was fully committed to her beliefs. A Sister of Charity of Saint Elizabeth (Convent Station, N.J.), she graduated from Georgetown Medical School and completed a residency at Bellevue/Veterans’ Adminis-tration, specializing in infectious diseases just as AIDS, a terrifying and then-unnamed disease, was being reported by physicians on both coasts.
Once I asked her why she chose this specialty. She fixed me with her direct gaze, looking at me as if I had asked a really strange question: “Because the poor are disproportionately affected by infectious disease,” she said. “That is where a Sister of Charity should be.” That was her primary motivation, her passion.
As a scientist and scholar, Reyelt approached each person living with H.I.V. as a fellow human traveler; she also welcomed the intellectual and scientific challenge to understand, address and beat this devastating disease. She brought her considerable spiritual, social and scientific skills to bear upon the medical reality of each patient she met.
In the early 1990s Reyelt’s fear was realized when she received a needle stick while treating a patient, an IV-drug user. Although she followed all the medically prescribed precautions, Reyelt ultimately became so sick with hepatitis that her liver function failed. Facing certain death without a new liver and convinced that her work for the sick and dying was not finished, Reyelt underwent a transplant.
The transplantation process was not smooth, and Reyelt faced disheartening challenges. Yet she was back at her practice as soon as she was able. She never missed a Catholic AIDS Network meeting. Over the years the AIDS network met in many American cities, always on a shoe-string budget, sometimes in less than desirable venues.
Never did I hear her complain of the medications she had to take or the edema she frequently experienced. She joked about “moving slowly,” especially in the morning. But that did not stop her from attending every international AIDS conference over a 20-year period. She traveled to Russia, Thailand and Africa to seek the best combinations of medicine to treat her patients. She took pride in the fact that some of her poorest patients lived with the disease for many years. And she thrilled in the knowledge that her female patients gave birth to healthy babies and were able to provide for their beloved children.
Caring for poor persons living with H.I.V. and ministering to patients who ultimately die of AIDS is a heavy burden for any doctor. Yet Reyelt never seemed overwhelmed or depressed. She was sustained by a deep faith in the Gospel message and a sense of humor that gave her a light grasp on life. She did not take herself too seriously, nor was she impressed with pedantic pomposity in other professionals. Reyelt’s eyes would often dance with glee as she silently made note of some humorous remark or a situation ripe with irony. Careful not to give offense, she would hold her wry remarks for a private moment, allowing herself to indulge in mirth that embraced the whole human family.
Sister Christine, Doctor Reyelt
While Reyelt was a physician par excellence, she was first and foremost a Sister of Charity. Her mother got it right when she would introduce her only child, saying, “I’d like you to meet my daughter, Sister Christine, Doctor Reyelt.” Reyelt’s loving religious community gave her the support to work in often trying circumstances. Her sisters provided the grounding, balance and impetus she needed to meet daily challenges. She relished her time apart with them—times of retreat and celebration.
Reyelt’s transplanted liver, the gift of a generous, anonymous donor, served her well for 14 years. It permitted her to treat countless patients, to rack up thousands of frequent flyer miles, to pray and laugh and to be present to her fellow religious.
In February 2008, we met for the last time. Reyelt had a troubling, persistent cough. As a physician she knew that her immune system was severely compromised and that a common cold could lead to systemic illness. Ultimately, infection was the immediate cause of her death, yet her life was not taken from her because of a needle stick. Rather, she gave it fully and freely because of her commitment to Jesus and to the poor and the sick he inspired her to love.
On a misty June afternoon, Christine Reyelt’s worlds—medicine, the state and national boards on which she served, and her religious community—came together in the chapel at Convent Station. Her sisters came to celebrate and thank God for her vocation and dedication; for her prayerfulness, playfulness and humor; and for the way she lived out St. Vincent de Paul’s instruction that “you are the servant of the poor, always smiling and good humored.” Most touching to me was the steady stream of persons, many living with AIDS, and others, family members of those who had died of the disease, who processed up the center aisle, one by one, to offer their thanks for this extraordinary woman.
Not all of us are called to be martyrs, but each one of us is called to give our lives for others. Christine Reyelt was a model of such selfless love, a physician and a devoted servant of God who laid down her life not with pomp and circumstance, but with grace, humility and humor.