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.
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.