For years, he had dreamed of being a symphonic orchestra director. But his father, a well-known pulmonologist in the Dominican Republic, had different plans for his son. So D’Oleo went along with his father’s wishes and started medical school. In this third year, he dropped out.
At the time, he underwent surgery to alleviate chronic knee pain. While recovering in a hospital bed, he saw a TV news report about the dearth of children’s hospitals in the Dominican Republic. The camera cut to a long line of patients waiting outside an emergency room—including a little girl who caught his eye.
“She was crying, and she was rubbing her left knee because she had a lot of pain,” D’Oleo recalled. “And when I saw that, I thought to myself, Maximo: You are a privileged boy coming from a family that is wealthy. You have a health condition, but you had surgery in a good hospital. You have your loved ones surrounding you, taking care of you.”
He reconsidered how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. That same year, he returned to medical school on crutches.
“To experience sickness made me better understand people who are suffering,” he said.
D’Oleo is now a 52-year-old general pediatrician at Saint Joseph’s Medical Center in Yonkers, New York, and a student in the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education’s advanced certificate program in spiritual direction.
“I was trained to take care of physical conditions, like asthma, ear infections, throat infections, abdominal pain, and anemia,” he said. “But I started seeing more and more kids with a lot of emotional problems—problems related to family dynamics, the environment, social issues … I thought to myself, these people need something different than what we are offering here right now.”
Life and Death in the ICU
Over the past two decades, D’Oleo has been practicing medicine in the Dominican Republic and the U.S., where he now resides. He recalled several memories that shaped the doctor he is today.
In his final year of medical school, he was working at a children’s hospital when he found a girl crying in pain. A nurse explained that the patient had a spinal tumor and the painkillers weren’t working. The girl was crying so loudly that nearby patients couldn’t sleep. So D’Oleo picked her up and wandered throughout the hospital, carrying her on his back. He brought her back to her bed, where she fell asleep—and stayed asleep for the rest of the night.
“That event was a confirmation that I was on the right path,” D’Oleo said.
In 1993, he graduated from Universidad Iberoamericana with his medical degree and treated patients in his native country and new home. He cared for children in pediatric intensive care units whose conditions faltered “in a snap” and couldn’t be saved, he said. He treated children attached to ventilators who, to his surprise, survived. He learned how to talk to the parents of young patients who passed away. But perhaps most importantly, he said, he learned what it means to be a good doctor.
“To be a great doctor is to stay with the patient—to be there for them. That they feel that you are really taking care of them, accompanying them,” D’Oleo said.
Tending to Spiritual Needs of Patients and Families—Especially the Mothers
To better “accompany” his patients, D’Oleo is learning to tend to not only their bodies but also their spirit.
His motivation begins with his family. D’Oleo was raised by religious parents, including a Catholic mother who showed him the value in caring for people’s spiritual needs. And a practicing Catholic himself, he understood the power of prayer.
D’Oleo said the program is teaching him how to be a better listener, especially with his patients’ mothers. Historically, women have been marginalized, he said, and have spiritual needs that many people don’t know how to treat. He is now learning to pay more attention to the mothers’ narratives, including small words and expressions that hint at what’s happening in their lives.
Through the GRE program, he said he also learned the importance of avoiding proselytizing.
“You are a companion to allow people to discover [themselves],” D’Oleo said.
At the end of the program, he said he will be a certified spiritual director who can better serve his patients and church community members. D’Oleo said he will live the rest of his life in service to others, just like his wife Denise Jimenez-D’Oleo, who passed away last year after battling breast cancer.
“You have to do something in your life to be useful to others. Your life is not only focused on you,” D’Oleo said. “While you are here on this planet, on this Earth … make a better world.”