Dr. Tim Flanigan of the Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, is a husband, a father of five, an infectious disease doctor and a professor at Brown University.
In September 2014, at the height of the Ebola epidemic, he traveled to Liberia as a volunteer for two months to help organize the response.
“Listen, I’m no good in a tsunami or an earthquake. I’m not an orthopedic guy; I’m an infectious disease doc. If I didn’t go during the Ebola epidemic, when would I go?”
Everything you need to protect against Ebola, it turns out, can be bought at Home Depot. He packed seven hockey bags with supplies: suits, gloves, goggles. He and Sister Barbara Brilliant, FMM, made the last flight from Boston on August 31, before Delta stopped flying to Monrovia.
Father Miguel Pajares, 75, the chaplain at St. Joseph Hospital there, had contracted Ebola and died five days later. The director of the hospital, Brother Patrick Nshamdze, also became infected and died, as did nine of the remaining 15 workers. The hospital was closed. Dr. Flanigan and Sister Barbara — who has worked in Liberia for 35 years — and her team worked to train and work side by side with the hospital staff to reopen.
The heat was oppressive. The streets were dangerous by night. The fare was goat stew.
Dr. Flanigan waves off all notion that his service was heroic.
“No, no, I’ll tell you who were the heroes. The Liberian nurses, unheralded, unsung. The country was paralyzed by fear. And they showed up, day after day, for next to no pay and no glory.”
Recently, Dr. Flanigan invited me to Portsmouth Abbey School in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, for a weekend conference called “Christian Courage in a Secular Age.” The conference was sponsored by the Portsmouth Institute, which “promotes an authentic exploration of Catholic thought, encourages a deeper commitment to the faith and fosters an awareness of Catholic teaching as it applies to the dignity of the human person and a just society.”
When I asked to interview the good doctor, I thought we’d discuss his trip to Liberia. But what he really wanted to talk about was his diaconate.
“I’m a cradle Catholic from a NYC banking and finance family. During college I volunteered at a little hospital up in Newfoundland. Wheeled people around. Saw the life of the hospital. Loved it.”
He attended Dartmouth, then medical school at Cornell. He spent time with Catholic Relief Services. “Loved the challenges. Loved the idea of tropical medicine. Loved the drama.”
He met his wife Luba, also a doctor, in med school. They moved to Rhode Island in 1991.
In the late 1980’s, the AIDS epidemic was unfolding. The need was intense. He was an HIV and AIDS doctor all through the 1990’s.
“That’s really defined my whole area. The treatments got better and better. It was exhilarating, to take such a scourge of a disease and learn how to treat it extraordinarily well.”
“We actually called it the Lazarus effect. I saw patients pick up their mats and walk. They went from no hope to hope. To see that was phenomenal. “
Dr. Flanigan describes himself as “classic hyperactive. High energy, high optimism. I’ve always wanted to do a million things at once.”
His agenda was for everyone in the world to get good HIV treatment. For all the substance abusers to be cared for. He put a great clinic in the prison. He started a non-profit to help children of incarcerated parents.
“Mission-based schools. STAR kids. So many wonderful things to do.”
“My faith has always been important to me. It wasn’t until I was in my 40s, several years ago, that the Lord really made me stop. Something was wrong. I hungered for more. I was going to Mass on Sundays, praying a little here and there. But not fervent. Impatient, uneasy, restless, dissatisfied.”
His dissatisfaction happened to coincide with his patients responding so beautifully to treatment. A nurse he was working with suggested that he talk to her husband.
“So I did — and the guy was looking at the diaconate program.
Something clicked. The diaconate was radical surgery. Five years of preparation. Classes every Monday night. The office morning and night. Mass daily, insofar as possible.
“I’m an expert at getting things done. Organizing, delegating. Becoming a deacon showed me I’m really the Lord’s.”
He was ordained five years ago.
“The job description is very open-ended. You have to hang out, listen, discern, adapt, fit in. You become friends with folks you otherwise wouldn’t have taken the time to become friends with. It’s a kind of service not in the headlines. If it’s in the headlines, something’s wrong with it.”
We want dramatic healings and martrydoms, but as Dr. Flanigan — man of Christian courage — observes, that’s not usually how things happen.
“What we really have to do is put up with life.
“How much harder to help wherever and however help is needed. How much harder to be patient and cheerful to everyone, day in and day out.”
Heather King is a blogger, speaker and the author of several books.