By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Dr. Anne Vangarsse sat in her office at the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences, surrounded by framed diplomas, family photos and the paperwork of a teaching physician. The conversation surrounded her education — grade and high school, college, medical school and residency — all at Catholic institutions, and how it challenged her, pushed her and formed her to be the woman, wife and mother, doctor and teacher that she is today.
When she was two years old, Anne was admitted to Children’s Mercy Hospital with a virulent staph-type infection. Despite various treatments, her condition worsened and her parents asked for a priest. The toddler received what was then called “Extreme Unction” (now the Sacrament of the Sick) and as it happened, her health improved. She was released after a 10-day stay, just in time for Christmas.
She attended Holy Cross School for kindergarten through third grade, then St. Stephen’s Academy for the remainder of her grade school years. For some time, Anne had felt the call to be a pediatrician, perhaps partly due to the gratitude her parents had toward the doctors at Children’s Mercy Hospital.
She was eager to attend St. Teresa’s Academy since she was sure she would receive an excellent education with a Catholic foundation. She did well at STA; Anne loved to read and study. Then at the end of her sophomore year, her parents informed her that they could no longer afford her tuition at St. Teresa’s and if she wanted to continue there, she would have to get a job and pay her own tuition. Anne understood the situation — her father was a mailman and her mother a homemaker. She also knew she wanted to continue at St. Teresa’s and hopefully receive a scholarship to a good Catholic college. So … she found a job at a Wendy’s restaurant near her home and worked after school, on weekends and summers during her junior and senior years at St. Teresa’s, writing her own tuition checks each month.
“My goal was to get a full ride to college,” she said. She was the first in her family to attend college. “I studied hard, and got that scholarship. I had a choice between Quincy and Rockhurst and I chose Rockhurst. I was able to get in the Pre-med Scholars program Rockhurst has with St. Louis University.”
The Pre-med Scholars program has rigorous academic and extracurricular requirements, including a 3.6 overall and science GPA all years. It enables a serious pre-med student to apply for early admission to St. Louis University Medical School, but doesn’t guarantee it. Anne was admitted. She graduated from Rockhurst with a Bachelor of Science in Biology in 1995 and moved to St. Louis to begin medical school.
She had also fallen in love with the tradition of Jesuit schools, teaching students to be men and women for others, a Catholic tradition of service and justice.
She was still attracted to pediatrics. During medical school at SLU, she was struck again by the men and women for others tradition, and by the bioethics — the studies of the generally controversial ethical and moral issues arising from biological and medical advances — courses. Her future actions were framed by the Catholic traditions of service, especially to the underserved; morality; ethics and universality.
She had met her future husband when she was a senior at STA and he a senior at Rockhurst High School. A long-distance relationship was endured during college (he attended the University of Missouri-Columbia) and medical school, but they made it through. They were married the summer between her graduation from medical school and her pediatrics residency program.
Anne’s 3-year residency was at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, the only free-standing Catholic pediatric hospital in the U.S. She was drawn to its mission of taking care of all children, regardless of parental ability to pay, and to the sense of the healing presence of God in all instances.
She took that sense to her first private practice in Lawrence, Kan., where she stayed for 11 years. Anne’s practice was in general pediatrics; she also had a special interest in pediatric weight management, and started a little clinic with a nutritionist friend.
Three daughters were born while Dr. Vangarsse and her husband lived in Lawrence. As the two older girls grew, they attended Corpus Christi, their parish school. When the oldest was in fourth grade, her parents realized that there was no Catholic high school in Lawrence and they wanted to send her to a Catholic high school. Some parents drove their kids to Hayden Catholic High School in Topeka, while some others drove to St. James Academy in western Shawnee, Kan. Still others sent their kids to either the Episcopalian or a public high school. Anne and her husband discussed it and decided their course was simple. They’d move back to Kansas City and when their oldest was ready for high school, she and later her younger siblings would all attend St. Teresa’s Academy.
Anne found a position teaching in the Primary Care Division at Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences. They found a house seven houses away from St. Teresa’s and moved to Kansas City in 2013. Now the division’s Assistant Dean for Clinical Affairs as well as Assistant Professor for Pediatrics, she teaches courses in Adolescent Medicine, Childhood Obesity and Care of the Normal Newborn.
Her husband works from home, which helps with getting their daughters to school, and being there when they get home. They are Visitation parishioners and a school family.
Their youngest daughter is a kindergartner this year. “This will be the only year I’ll have all three of my girls in the same school,” she said. “I’ll have one in 8th grade, one in 3rd grade and one in kindergarten. Next year my oldest will be at St. Teresa’s.”
Recently, Anne was named Chief Medical Officer for Health Partnership Clinic (HPC) of Johnson County, a federally qualified health center serving the suburban poor. The clinic serves as a safety net to ensure under and un-insured patients in Johnson County, Kan., have access to quality medical, dental and behavioral health services. Anne likes that the clinics serve those who otherwise would not have access to healthcare for reasons including language or cultural barriers or lack of insurance.
As chief medical officer, she is responsible for the leadership and management of all HPC’s clinical services, as well as supervising the clinic’s providers. In her role as assistant dean of clinical affairs at KCUMB, she serves as the liaison for all its clinical partners. She has served as chief liaison between the university and the clinic since the partnership began in August 2015.
She brings the values, precepts and knowledge she learned through 20 years of Catholic education —kindergarten through medical school — as well as three years of residency at a Catholic hospital, to her profession and to her family.
“Everything I was taught, I do now,” she said. “I feel that I have more interest in the needs of the underserved and the poor because of my faith.” She added that cultural and spiritual sensitivity are important in the healthcare field; their culture and their spirituality, whether it’s faith in a higher power or just a positive feeling, is part of the psyche of a patient.
Anne would like to see more young people “get a fire lit in their belly to taking care of folks in need.” Her oldest daughter has helped with paperwork at the clinic, has volunteered at Holy Family Catholic Worker House and at several events for the members of Catholic Charities Junior Board.
“Catholic education needs to continue to be a beacon of light in the darkness,” Anne said. “A beacon of light in the midst of the world’s dark issues. Catholic schools should follow Pope Francis’ lead to the inclusive language of love. Through catholicity, the universality of our faith in God, we can leave the world better than we found it. Catholic schools send people out into the world who are well-educated, service oriented, know how to think, creative and full of positive faith. That’s more crucial now than in a long, long time! With all the negatives in our lives and in our world, we need to be more positive and faith-filled and not just in words. I don’t feel that I have to talk about being Catholic, I just do it.”
The Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and the Jesuits would likely agree.