For Ashlyn Stackhouse, medicine is “a way of worship.”
The 25-year-old lifelong United Methodist comes to this conclusion honestly.
For all but the first 16 hours of her life, Stackhouse and her parents, members at First United Methodist Church of North Wilkesboro, have navigated a mysterious medical odyssey, a lifetime of obstacles that led Stackhouse to a career as a genetic counselor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
Life obstacles become calling
This profession, Stackhouse, believes, is a calling to use her life experiences to empathize with her patients and offer hope and perseverance while searching for medical options.
At birth, Stackhouse was a normal healthy baby.
“Then I had a drastic change,” she said. “I could no longer suck, swallow or feed. I was limp and I had loss of muscle tone. They had no idea what happened.”
For five years, she survived via a feeding tube in her stomach.
“There was not a lot of hope,” Stackhouse said. “I had a lot of weakness and my body, especially in my legs,” she said. “I used to run like Forrest Gump with the legs going out to the side.”
She couldn’t smile, because of weakness in her face muscles.
“I still remember that people would say, ‘When I first met you, I thought you were a bully. You look so mean, you were never smiling. But as I got to know you, I see that you're so joyful, and I love being your friend.’”
After years of work with physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech pathologists, along with clinical trials and experimental treatments, Stackhouse built muscle and isn’t spending her life in a wheelchair, as some predicted.
“What made the most difference is (my parents) never gave up,” she said. “They never lost faith, never lost hope.”
Where health care meets God’s love
Now in her job as a genetic counselor at UNC, Stackhouse is resolute to do the same for her patients. One way she made this a priority was by spending a year at Duke Divinity School as a fellow in the Theology, Medicine and Culture program. The program tries to “imagine a world in which practices of health care display the love and wisdom of God.”
“Ashlyn came to the program with a really clear vision,” said Dr. Farr Curlin, the Josiah C. Trent Professor of Medical Humanities at Duke and co-director of the TMC program. “She wants to give people who are facing uncertainty and questions about genetic diagnoses, information that not only gives them choice, but helps them see the good that is still ahead of them.”
The idea is to “walk alongside people who are facing things that are scary, and help them not just to grasp control, but to learn to live in a way that that they can find there’s good and not just stuff to dread,” Curlin said.
What people need — not just sick people — is community, Stackhouse said.
“The world doesn't do a great job at welcoming people of diverse backgrounds, cognition and physical appearance. We give them community resources that welcome people of all abilities and see them as image-bearers of God,” Stackhouse explains.
Life is a miracle
“I see that we are so intricately designed all the way down to the DNA level,” she shares. “Life is a miracle, and so much could go wrong. … We have to remember that we are not God in this world.
“Through science and medicine, he allows us to understand things to a degree, but there is still a sense of mystery.”
Jim Patterson is a Nashville, Tennessee freelance writer. Contact him by email.