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Catholic Doctor of the Year offers ‘healing component’ to health ministry

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Veteran pathologist Gary Pontrelli of Mission San Buenaventura, a volunteer with Ignatians West at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Oxnard, was honored as Catholic Doctor of the Year during the annual White Mass Oct. 8 at the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels. (Photo by Mike Nelson)

As a Catholic doctor of anatomic and clinical pathology for nearly four decades, Gary Pontrelli has had many opportunities to proclaim his faith in his practice. And so he does — but not by preaching.

“It’s the day-to-day dealings and practice with my colleagues, the laboratories and the hospital workers I work with that matter,” says the soft-spoken Ventura resident and lifelong Catholic. “It’s how you live your life, how you treat people that influences them the most, more than any amount of preaching could do.”

How Gary Pontrelli lives his life, his profession and his ministry have contributed to his selection as Catholic Doctor of the Year in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles by the Mission Doctors Association, co-sponsor of the event with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Office of Health Affairs. Mission Doctors Association was founded in 1959 to support the work of Catholic Doctors and their families serving in mission hospitals and clinics. Dr. Pontrelli was honored for his faith-centered approach to medicine, an honor accorded at the annual White Mass on Oct. 8 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. 

The White Mass has been a tradition in the United States since the late 1800s. It is held near the Feast of St. Luke (Oct. 18), patron saint of healers. It is named for the white coats worn by many healthcare professionals. During the Mass, Bishop Gerald Wilkerson blessed the hands of the health care professionals, many of whom were wearing their white lab coats.

A husband, father, Catholic school graduate and parishioner of Mission San Buenaventura, Pontrelli is officially “retired” from his pathology practice, but he remains active as an Ignatians West volunteer at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Oxnard, serving as part of its spiritual care team.

“Gary is a stellar individual, the perfect volunteer and a model of faith,” says Anne Hansen, director of Ignatians West, a Los Angeles-based, Jesuit-affiliated volunteer ministry for older adults. “Initially, Gary was to be involved with end-of-life issues at St. John’s, and while this is part of his volunteering experience, he is also serving as an assistant chaplain, distributing communion, easing the fears of both ER and admitted patients, utilizing his Spanish-speaking skills, and being the face of Jesus.”

Involvement in Catholic-based care comes naturally to Pontrelli, who grew up in the Silverlake area attending St. Francis of Assisi and Mother of Good Counsel Schools, Loyola High School and USC, hoping to be accepted to medical school.

“I always liked science and biology,” he recalls. “Back then, though, baby boomers were flooding med schools so it was tough to get in. I ended up doing volunteer work for three years in Guadalajara, learning Spanish and meeting my future wife, Maria.” With a smile, he adds, “It was time well spent.”

He was finally accepted at St. Louis University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, earned his medical degree and returned home for his internship in pathology at L.A. County-USC Medical Center.

“I’d thought of becoming a family practitioner,” he says, “but pathology appealed to me because it is so intellectually challenging and stimulating. You have to keep abreast of all areas of medicine, consult with a variety of specialists. It’s not a boring field of endeavor by any means.”

With St. John’s in Oxnard seeking pathologists, Pontrelli moved to Ventura County. Four years later, he joined a friend in a reference lab business in Ventura, where he spent 18 years, and served on staff at St John’s and Ventura County Medical Center before retiring in early 2016 — sort of.

“I knew six months ahead of retiring I’d be doing some sort of volunteer work, though I wasn’t sure what,” he says. “But I remembered, years ago, reading about the Ignatian Volunteer Corps [the predecessor of Ignatians West] for those 50 and over. So I considered it, and on March 31 2016, Maria and I were praying in the chapel of the Montserrat Monastery near Barcelona, the place where St. Ignatius of Loyola had a conversion experience. With the Jesuit and Ignatian traditions in my background, it just made sense to join.”

Returning home, Pontrelli talked to Hansen, who soon invited him to join the spiritual care staff at St. John’s. “It was meant to be,” he grins.

At St. John’s, Pontrelli serves in eucharistic ministry, assists chaplains with providing spiritual care, does spiritual assessments, and educates patients and their families on advanced care directives, all of which employ his bilingual skills. He also serves on the hospital’s ethics committee and quality improvement board.

“St. John’s spiritual care department is a very well organized group,” he notes, “incorporating Catholic ethical and moral teaching into patient care. When I was here years ago, I got to know the Sisters of Mercy who founded the hospital, and saw how much they believed in their mission, how they fostered a real culture of faith and healing. And that continues under Dignity Health. It’s a mutually affirming ministry and profession.”

Ignatians West, now a project Community Partners, an L.A.-based coalition of service providers, is more than pleased to have Pontrelli’s presence.

“Gary drives from Ventura to the downtown area of Los Angeles to participate in our monthly meetings,” notes Hansen, “and always comes prepared with reflections on the assigned readings that are honest as well as indicative of the depth of his faith.”

No surprise, since Pontrelli is a certified “master lector” at Mission San Buenaventura, where he and Maria (his wife of 39 years) also serve as eucharistic ministers and weekday sacristans, and stand ready to assist in whatever capacity they can.

“You just ask God, ‘What can I do?’, and you get lots of answers,” says Gary with a smile. “And helping to offer a spiritual component to healing ministry and health care really resonates with me.”

The archdiocesan White Mass, celebrating the work of Catholic health care professionals, was held Oct. 8 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. For information on the White Mass for Healthcare Professionals, visit www.CatholicWM.org. For information on the work of Mission Doctors, please visit the www.MissionDoctors.org.

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