This interview was first published in the Summer 2018 issue of Plough Quarterly, The Soul of Medicine.

What’s it like to practice medicine in a community where doctors don’t charge and patients don’t pay? Plough sat down with two Bruderhof physicians to talk about house calls, new technologies, the moments of birth and death – and why having fun is a vital part of care.

Plough: How did you get into medicine?

Milton Zimmerman: When I was four years old I had rheumatic fever. The doctor who took care of me came on house calls again and again, and he was such a friendly guy whom I enjoyed so much. I thought, “Hey, when I grow up I want to be like him.” That’s where it started. After Amherst, I attended the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, class of ’54.

During medical school I found Jesus – or Jesus found me. That set a direction for my life, and I was looking for a church that really followed the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ life and teachings. That led me to become a pacifist. As a result, in 1957, when I was looking for a place to do my alternative service in lieu of going to the military, I chose the Bruderhof-run hospital in Paraguay. Two years later, my wife and I joined the community.

I practiced medicine for sixty years. All but two of those were as a family doctor working within the Bruderhof community – mostly treating community members, but also working at the local hospital and in the clinic treating migrant farmers nearby.

Monika Mommsen: I’ve practiced for forty-one years. Ever since I was little, I had always wanted to be a nurse – I grew up in the Bruderhof community. But in my senior year of high school, after I expressed my wish to become a member, the community asked if I would become a doctor, since they were eager to have a female physician. That came as a surprise, but I said yes and I’ve loved it ever since. After getting an undergraduate art degree I studied at the Albany Medical College, class of ’75. From the beginning, Milton has been my mentor.

Monika Mommsen and Milton Zimmerman All photographs courtesy of the interviewees

Were there other women doctors in the Bruderhof community at the time?

Monika: Yes, two English women doctors had joined in England before World War II and moved down to Paraguay, South America, where they helped found a hospital. But they weren’t practicing much anymore. And Dr. Miriam Brailey, a pioneering epidemiologist who had taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, was also a Bruderhof member and a family friend.