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Faith in Action Blog

Faith in Action Blog

Katie Ellefson (’16)Katie Ellefson (’16)The three alumnae nurses profiled on this blog nearly two months ago — Katie Ellefson (’16), Joanna Kaiser (’15), and Annamaria Masteller (’16) — continue to inspire the faithful across the country. In May the Arlington Catholic Register published a story about how Miss Ellefson and Miss Masteller were fairing as new nurses in hospitals that have been overwhelmed by COVID-19. And now Patrick Reilly, president and founder of The Cardinal Newman Society, has featured Miss Ellefson in a new story for the National Catholic Register, These College Grads Are Saving Lives:

Katie Ellefson, a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, is now a nurse in a Virginia hospital, where her entire floor was turned into a COVID unit. She explained to the College that nurses are often the “only people who are physically coming into the room to check on these patients,” and they are “generally more lonely, scared, and anxious than our typical patients.”

“Being able to be the person who can go in there and cheer them up and make their stay even just a little better has honestly been such a gift,” she says.

Surely her patients are at least as grateful for Ellefson and her Christian heroism!

The work of Miss Ellefson and others like her, he continues, “is a great blessing and inspiration, and it reflects well on the faithful Catholic education that they received.”

Katie Ellefson, RN, BSN (’16), Joanna Kaiser, RN, BSN (’15), and Annamaria Masteller, RN, BSN (’16) Katie Ellefson, RN, BSN (’16), Joanna Kaiser, RN, BSN (’15), and Annamaria Masteller, RN, BSN (’16)

A new article in the Arlington Catholic Herald, Health care workers share what it’s like to treat COVID-19 patients, features two of three alumnae nurses recently profiled on this blog, Katie Ellefson, RN, BSN (’16), and Annamaria Masteller, RN, BSN (’16).

“Annamaria Masteller’s nursing career began March 23, 2020,” begins reporter Zoey Maraist. “She had expected her first year of nursing to be challenging, but she hadn’t expected to start at Inova Fairfax Hospital during a global pandemic.”

In the story, both of the new nurses reflect on how the Faith informs their work and brings them solace as they battle the pandemic. “We are given countless opportunities every shift to brighten the lives of patients. And that makes my job very rewarding,” says Miss Ellefson. Adds Miss Masteller, “I just don’t know how I would do it if I didn’t have this understanding that God is in control. … I feel like I have this little secret that I get to take with me every day, that I have this huge, powerful God on my side even though I’m just this new nurse.”

The full story is available via the Catholic Herald website.

Katie Ellefson, RN, BSN (’16), Joanna Kaiser, RN, BSN (’15), and Annamaria Masteller, RN, BSN (’16) Katie Ellefson, RN, BSN (’16), Joanna Kaiser, RN, BSN (’15), and Annamaria Masteller, RN, BSN (’16)

“I got hired onto a medical floor where normally we see a wide variety of patients,” reflects Katie Ellefson, RN, BSN (’16), who in February began her first nursing job at the Inova health system’s medical campus in Fairfax, Virginia. “Three weeks after I started, our entire floor was turned into a COVID unit.”

This wasn’t how Miss Ellefson or her two fellow Thomas Aquinas College alumnae — Joanna Kaiser, RN, BSN (’15), and Annamaria Masteller, RN, BSN (’16) — envisioned their medical careers would begin. The three friends, all recent nursing-school graduates, accepted positions at the same hospital only weeks before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus upended American medicine. Now it consumes their days.

“The day I came to shadow during orientation week was the day our unit transitioned to a COVID-19 unit,” says Miss Kaiser. Adds Miss Masteller, “For the first three weeks of my job, I was able to have a somewhat normal orientation with just regular medical/surgical patients. Now we are specifically caring for COVID patients.”

The timing, they say, is providential. “You know you have a great job when you arrive at the hospital for a 13-hour night shift, groggy and a touch cranky, and you leave the next morning peaceful and happy,” says Miss Ellefson. “I'm very grateful that I became a nurse in time to be able to help out in whatever ways I can in this crazy time.”

Bonds of Friendship

When they graduated from Thomas Aquinas College a few years ago, none of these new nurses had immediate plans to pursue medical careers. While Miss Kaiser considered entering religious life, all three traveled and worked various jobs near the California campus until — inspired, in part, by each other — they began to take prerequisite classes and apply to various nursing programs. “It was so wonderful to have these girls with me along for the whole journey,” says Miss Kaiser. “We worked together, took classes together, and supported each other throughout the application process.”

Eventually Miss Masteller and Miss Kaiser enrolled in an accelerated program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where, Miss Kaiser notes, they “enjoyed the community life at TAC, New England, while we studied.” Miss Ellefson, meanwhile, enrolled in a similar program in Cleveland, Ohio, and the three met up again in Virginia after completing their licensing examinations earlier this year. 

For these friends, working together during this time of isolation is a great comfort. “One thing that has really been affected with this virus is our ability to mingle with other new nurses in the hospital,” says Miss Masteller. “There are usually classes and meetings every other week for the new nurses to gather and share the various experiences that come along with being new to the unit. I am so lucky, however, to have two very close friends who are starting at the same time.” 

Practicing in Times of Pandemic

Although the pandemic has not much changed the essential duties of nursing, the nurses report, rampant fear and uncertainty have radically altered the environment in which medicine is practiced.

"In order to limit our contact with patients, we try our best to cluster care, spending only 20 minutes at a time in each room,” says Miss Masteller. “And, of course, we are fully gowned and gloved, with masks and face shields. We also are doing more frequent checks of their respiratory status.” As researchers learn more about the nature of the virus, healthcare workers must modify their practices accordingly. “Policies at the hospital are changing almost every day,” says Miss Kaiser, “as we attempt to adapt and respond to the needs of the community and the needs of the staff.”

The crisis, however, is most distressing for the nurses’ patients, who must battle a mysterious, possibly deadly illness without the consolation of visits from friends and family. “Most of the time we are the only people who are physically coming into the room to check on these patients,” says Miss Ellefson. “They are generally more lonely, scared, and anxious than our typical patients. Being able to be the person who can go in there and cheer them up and make their stay even just a little better has honestly been such a gift.”

This is, after all, what drew these young women into medicine in the first place: the opportunity to comfort the afflicted in their time of need, and it makes even the newly heightened dangers of the medical profession worthwhile. “Being infected with some illness at the hospital has always been a risk for healthcare workers, and it was a risk I chose to take when I chose this profession,” says Miss Kaiser. “I am confident that God has me where He wants me, and I am focusing on learning as much as I can during my orientation, so that I can provide the best care I am able.”

Formed and Fortified

It is their faith, the nurses say, that gives them the strength to withstand their arduous entry into the nursing profession — a faith nurtured and deepened during their time at Thomas Aquinas College. “The education and community life at TAC provided me with a solid foundation in the faith and a love of truth that has been a rock to stand on in uncertain times and a shield from the anxiety of the world,” says Miss Kaiser. “At the College I learned that ultimately everything is in God's hands,” says Miss Ellefson. “We have to trust Him entirely and not give in to the panic, anxiety, and stress that the world is constantly pushing on us.”

Although she has known that she wanted to be a nurse since she was eight years old, Miss Ellefson says she has no regrets about earning a bachelor of liberal arts degree at the College before going to nursing school. “My years at TAC prepared me for nursing in ways I never planned or foresaw,” she explains. “I left with a clearer, more analytical mind; I am able to reason better and, above all, empathize better.” As Miss Masteller puts it, “Having already been to college, and especially to a college like TAC, I was able to take my nursing studies very seriously and enter the field with a very holistic approach, seeking to understand the full picture of each body system, disease, or medication, and not just memorize what was placed in front of me.”

Their Catholic liberal education has prepared them to enter their new profession with a peaceful and confident longing to serve, even amidst much turmoil and anxiety. “Being a nurse is challenging in many ways, and nobody would ever say that it’s glamorous,” says Miss Ellefson. “But we are offered concrete opportunities every moment of every shift to ease the suffering of our patients and make their nights a little better in very simple ways — and that can be very rewarding.”

“A small biotech company, based in Kansas City, is making a major contribution to local hospitals and healthcare workers during the coronavirus pandemic,” begins a recent Fox 4 news report. “MAWD Pathology Group is redirecting its resources to ramp up the production of testing kits for COVID-19.”

Dr. Samuel Caughron (’96) Dr. Samuel Caughron (’96)The physician and executive responsible for this act of public service is Dr. Samuel Caughron (’96), MAWD’s president and CEO. “What we saw is, in our hospitals, these patients who were being admitted, who were coming in for care, as well as the healthcare workers in the hospitals, needed a quicker turnaround time,” Dr. Caughron told reporters at KCTV News 5. So he and his team began offering expedited testing for those who are ill. “We had the equipment, we had the expertise,” Dr. Caughron said to Fox 4. “We decided we could help out by making that testing available to those hospitals.”

Whereas testing with standard kits takes days to yield results, MAWD can deliver them in hours, accelerating diagnoses and sparing hospitals the need to waste scarce personal-protective equipment (PPE) on patients who are not, in fact, infected. “The huge benefit is the resources,” says Dr. Caughron. “We can save the PPE for the patients who do indeed have the disease, and we can take care of them.”

Thanks be to God! Please continue to pray for Dr. Caughron, for his good work, and for all who are afflicted by COVID-19.

Marietta Grumbine (’14)

“We need ethical therapists, and this is why I have come to talk to you today,” Marietta Grumbine (’14) told a group of Thomas Aquinas College, California, students last week at a talk about psychology and counseling, sponsored by the Office of Career Services. “I have been where you are, and I know the formation that you have had. We need you.”

Marietta Grumbine (’14) Marietta Grumbine (’14)In the last year of a three-year Marriage and Family Therapy master’s program at Fuller Theological Seminary, Miss Grumbine is a counseling intern at the Phoenix Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter and addiction-recovery center where, she reports, she is blessed to perform daily three Spiritual Works of Mercy — “counseling the doubtful, comforting the afflicted or the sorrowful, and instructing the ignorant.”

The work of a therapist, however, “is not pretty, it’s not glamorous, and it’s heartbreaking sometimes,” Miss Grumbine cautioned. “Being a therapist is looking at all those things no one wants to look at — trauma, abuse, neglect, addiction — no one wants to look at those things. No one wants to look down and help. But we were told to do that. We were told to wash one another’s feet. We were told to look at the ugly things and serve. Being a therapist is that. It’s being a foot-washer.”

But it’s not for everyone. “Being a therapist is a calling, and I really want to stress that,” she continued. “If you’re still sitting here, hearing this talk, and if you have heard everything that I have to say about what therapy is really like, and what being a therapist is really like, and you are still interested … then you might be called to it.”

In the course of her hour-long presentation, “Beyond the Couch: Counseling and Clinical Psychology,” Miss Grumbine answered students questions about graduate-school options, various kinds of therapeutic practice, and the ethical challenges that a Catholic therapist may encounter. “You need to know what you believe,” she said, “and how you’re going to act on it.”

Counseling, she continued, serves an essential human need. “Everyone needs mental-health care, because we are human beings, just as everyone needs to be taken care of physically sometimes,” she explained. Because clients are often vulnerable, and the information they disclose can expose them to exploitation and manipulation, therapists must possess the highest ethical standards.

“There is a lot of beautiful work that can be done in therapy,” Miss Grumbine said. “But in order to do that work, you need to be trustworthy with people’s lives in your hands. That’s why I’m talking to you, because I’m hoping that you are those people, and I want to convince you to go be therapists.”

Franz Wall (’16) Franz Wall (’16)


“Since I was 15 years old I knew I wanted to be a dentist,” says Franz Wall (’16). That dream is now one step closer to reality, as Mr. Wall has been admitted to the Navy Health Professional Scholarship Program — under which he will receive a full scholarship to dental school, plus a stipend, valued at upward of $600,000. In exchange for the benefits, he will be required to serve for three years as a Navy dentist in active duty. “After my service obligation I will be returning to Mariposa, California, to start my own private dental practice,” he says.

Knowing at such a young age that he wanted to be a dentist presented Mr. Wall with a dilemma when it was time to choose a college. Because the typical approach for pre-dental students is to earn a bachelor’s degree in medicine or science, a liberal arts degree “seemed obsolete and ineffective,” he admits. “I was aware of the impressive reasoning skills and deep faith that the students of Thomas Aquinas College possessed, but I had a hard time discerning how that would help me as a dentist.”

His opinion changed, however, when he sought the advice of admissions officials at some prestigious dental colleges. “They explained that they wanted to teach the medicine, and they would rather I had a broad base of knowledge before I specialized,” Mr. Wall recalls. “This information made TAC an easier choice.”

Upon graduating in 2016 he completed prerequisite classes for dental school at the University of California, Merced. He then took the Dental Admissions Test and scored in the 98th percentile, upon which he applied and was one of the first six students accepted to the University of Pacific’s Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry this year.

In addition to his studies, for the last year and a half Mr. Wall has been working both as a dental assistant and for Mariposa County’s Oral Health Program. “We have been working for the last year on educating the community on oral hygiene and connecting underprivileged community members to oral health care,” he writes.

Looking forward — and back — he is pleased with his unconventional choice of a college. “The four years I spent at TAC have been some of the best years of my life,” he says. “I was able to grow closer to God through the support of many strong Catholic men and women, with daily sacraments and wonderful priests for advice. I was able to grow personally through the many good conversations and interactions I had with the people I met. I was able to learn how to think critically, how to make sense of any argument, and how to explain complicated concepts to people clearly. As years pass since my graduation, I realize more and more the value of my education and cannot be thankful enough.”

Dr. Thomas A. Cavanaugh (’85)

At its upcoming national convention, University Faculty for Life will award its Rupert and Timothy Smith Award for Distinguished Contributions to Pro-Life Scholarship to a graduate of the College, Dr. Thomas A. Cavanaugh (’85). The organization, which presents the award annually to honor “scholarly achievement and service of the pro-life movement,” chose Dr. Cavanaugh for his work on medical ethics, particularly as it pertains to euthanasia.

A professor of philosophy at the University of San Francisco, Dr. Cavanaugh is the author of  Hippocrates’ Oath and Asclepius’ Snake: the Birth of the Medical Profession, which Oxford University Press published last year. The book examines the Hippocratic Oath through a broad survey of Ancient Greek myth, drama, culture, and language. Drawing on extensive research, it addresses the subject of physician-inflicted harm, particularly doctor-assisted suicide, which Dr. Cavanaugh finds to be antithetical to medicine’s therapeutic ethic.

Over the last year, Hippocrates’ Oath and Asclepius’ Snake has received critical praise from a wide range of sources. Writing for America, Dr. Christopher Kaczor called the book, “required reading for anyone interested in the ethics of medicine.” In Commonweal, Mary McDonough declared that Dr. Cavanaugh “has recovered the root of medical ethics.”

As a recipient of the Smith Award, Dr. Cavanaugh will find himself in select company. Past hnorees include such luminaries as Dr. Robert P. George, Dr. Hadley Arkes, and Rev. Robert Spitzer, S.J.

Dr. Samuel Caughron (’96) talks to TAC students

“It’s really strange to be back here giving a talk,” confessed Dr. Samuel Caughron (’96), who visited the College’s California campus last week to deliver a presentation for the Career Service Office, “So You Think You might Want to be a Doctor?” Yet the president and CEO of MAWD Pathology Group, which serves 18 hospitals in the greater Kansas City area, returned to his alma mater nonetheless, because, as he put it, “The world needs more TAC graduates in healthcare.”

Dr. Samuel Caughron (’96) Dr. Samuel Caughron (’96)Over the course of the 90-minute discussion, Dr. Caughron took students’ questions, described what the life of a physician entails, and offered advice on applying to medical school. He also spoke about how his Catholic liberal education informs his work. “I think that an education at Thomas Aquinas College is the best education you can have going into medicine,” he said. “All the technical science — you can get that later. What you are doing here for these four years is incredibly important to be the complete physician.”

Indeed, Dr. Caughron continued, the longer he works as a doctor, the more he appreciates that a medical education, while essential, is insufficient for the true practice of medicine. “As your career progresses, the importance of your TAC education magnifies,” he said. “Our understanding of politics, of human nature, the nature of man, the nature of the world, is tremendously valuable as you get further into practice and you are asked to be on hospital committees to sort out complex questions, you are asked to be involved in regulatory discussions. ‘What is the role of government in the life of man?’ Such questions come back and have an application of relevance which you, as a physician, are going to have the opportunity to shape in your community.”

Moreover, “on a practical level,” he continued “the discussion style of classroom learning that we have here actually is tremendously useful. I’ve ended up in numerous leadership positions because of my ability to sit with a group of peers in a community and assimilate and summarize the ideas being discussed.”

Dr. Caughron’s advice ranged from a discussion of how the College’s students can best complete their prerequisites for medical school to simple tips about how to make the busy, harrowing life of a medical student most palatable. (Hint: Take a gap year, and don’t “put life on hold” — that is, delay marriage and family — just to complete professional training.)

By sharing the lessons learned over the course of his career, Dr. Caughron explained, he hoped to facilitate the careers of future fellow alumni. “Getting into and through medical school is a complex path,” he said. “As with any road, knowing the journey ahead is helpful.”

Dr. Paul W. White (’95)Add two more titles to the honorifics that Dr. Paul W. White (’95) has earned over the course of his career as a physician and officer in the United States Army: “Colonel” and “Consultant to the Surgeon General for Vascular Surgery.”

In 2006 Dr. White began a two-year fellowship in vascular surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Six years later he was named the fellowship’s director, training the Army’s general surgeons to become vascular surgeons by teaching the latest methods in research, testing, imaging, and surgery, both endovascular and conventional. In this capacity he became, in 2016, the consultant to the Surgeon General for vascular surgery. Last June he was promoted to the rank of colonel.

“I still work directly with patients because a lot of surgical training is apprenticeship-based, where we’re training the fellows in the operating room,” he explains. “But as an active duty Army officer, I have deployed several times, and I have other duties as far as field exercises, teaching courses, research, and academic work.” Dr. White is also a devoted husband to his wife, Margaret, and father to their seven children, ranging in age from 16 months to 16 years.

Additionally he finds time to serve his alma mater as a member of Thomas Aquinas College’s Washington, D.C., Board of Regents. “I am happy to do it because my four years at the College were as formative as any in my entire education,” he says. “I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the College, and if there is anything I can do to help it in any way, it is my pleasure and joy.”

Olivia Cobb ('16)Olivia Cobb (’16) reports from Washington University in St. Louis, where she is “studying biostatistics and loving every minute of it” in one of the field’s top academic programs. She is learning various statistical and computational methodologies, particularly as they pertain to biomedical data analysis and genomics research. She is also working part-time at an oncology lab, where she conducts statistical analysis on a rare form of sarcoma cancer.

“All of my classes are going well,” she writes. “My training at TAC has obviously been very helpful, and my philosophical training has turned out to be quite applicable to this scientific field.”

Still, having a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts makes her something of an outlier in this rigorous, STEM-focused graduate program. “The faculty is constantly checking in with me, as it turns out that I am their guinea pig for accepting students with a background in humanities rather than strictly math or biology,” she says. Nonetheless, “everyone I have talked to has been thoroughly impressed with my background and excited to find a position for me in the biostatistics field.”

She is delighting in the moment and looks forward to what lies ahead: “I absolutely love seeing where God is taking me on this path!”

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Caleb Skvaril (’19)

“Learning from the great books, you can see the questions that history’s greatest thinkers have asked and all the ways that they have tried to answer them. You’re able to see what’s right about what they’re saying, but also what’s wrong. The more your opinion is challenged, the more you have to refine it in order to get closer to the truth.”

– Caleb Skvaril (’19)

Asan, Guam


“The Church will flourish through the inspiring example and praiseworthy endeavors of Thomas Aquinas College.”

– The Most Rev. Pietro Sambi (†)

Apostolic Nuncio to the United States