By Robin Eisner
Photo credit: Annemarie Poyo-Furlong
Daniel W. Morrissey

Like all first-year medical students, Jeff DeVido’08 saw the Rev. Daniel W. Morrissey offer an ecumenical prayer during the White Coat Ceremony, when the students recite the Hippocratic oath and don their first professional uniform as they begin medical school. At the end of the first year, Mr. DeVido also attended a service, led by Fr. Morrissey, to honor individuals who donated their bodies to anatomy class. And Mr. DeVido knew that Fr. Morrissey directed AI:MS, a program that provides confidential help to students with addiction problems.
   Over his first two years at P&S, Mr. DeVido would see Fr. Morrissey at Bard Hall, where they both lived. Fr. Morrissey might be in the elevator going up to his apartment on the 12th floor or would be talking to someone in the lobby. Mr. DeVido, who has a B.S. degree in biochemistry from the University of Virginia and an M.A. degree in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School, would remind himself when he saw Fr. Morrissey that he should talk with him because of shared interests in spirituality and medicine.
   Near the end of the somewhat technological learning of the first two years of medical school, Mr. DeVido yearned to exercise his philosophy neurons a bit, so he set up an appointment to see Fr. Morrissey. Their discussion was the start of a friendship that Mr. DeVido expects will be among his most cherished memories of medical school. 
   This scene of Fr. Morrissey talking with students has been repeated many time over the past 20 years, and he has talked with hundreds, if not thousands of students, faculty, and other staff members in the Columbia community. He has provided counsel, encouragement, advice, guidance, assistance, support, friendship, and psychiatric referrals — when necessary — to all who have asked. He helps people address some of the most difficult questions human beings ask: Why am I alive? Is there something greater than me out there? He particularly appreciates the pressures students experience during graduate education, yet he uses his wicked sense of humor to lighten weighty discussions.
   Officially, Fr. Morrissey is director of AI:MS (Addiction Illness: Medical Solutions), assistant vice president in the medical center administration, counselor-in-residence, and assistant clinical professor in health policy and management at the Mailman School of Public Health. He teaches a second-year humanities class and a back-to-the-classroom course for fourth-year students. But no academic label accurately describes what he does.
His ordination as a Dominican priest and his many years of postgraduate education; his work with health care professionals at an addiction facility in New Mexico before coming to P&S; his relationship to Eunice and Robert Sargent Shriver Jr., when the latter was U.S. ambassador to France from 1968 to 1970 (see accompanying article); his relationships to other well-known people, such as
   Joan Didion, author of “The Year of Magical Thinking” (he officiated at funeral services for her husband and also for her daughter); his activities in medical licensing, misconduct review, and ethics; and the many other activities listed on his curriculum vitae only partially explain who he is.

Trustworthy Friend and Confidante

Photo credit: Annemarie Poyo-Furlong
Daniel Morrissey with students in the anatomy lab
Daniel Morrissey with students in the anatomy lab
“Father Morrissey was hired 20 years ago to help students with addiction problems and to run AI:MS, a program that fosters an environment of professionalism for students to help peers access appropriate addiction treatment,” says Lisa Mellman, M.D., senior associate dean for student affairs. “But Fr. Morrissey does more than direct AI:MS. He is a highly trustworthy friend and confidante. His openness and honesty comfort students and faculty. His joy, poetry, and spirituality when he speaks at ceremonies empower students with dignity.”
   “He is an integral part of the Columbia community,” says Ron Drusin, M.D., interim senior associate dean for education. Dr. Drusin insisted that Fr. Morrissey, though recovering from bilateral hip surgery, attend and speak, as usual, at the 2005 Steven Z. Miller Student Clinician Ceremony, which marks the transition at the end of the second year from classroom study to the third year’s hospital and outpatient clerkships. Josh Stager, clinical practice course coordinator, brought Fr. Morrissey to the auditorium in a wheelchair. “In his inimitable way, he gave the students perspective on what it is like to be a patient,” Dr. Drusin says.
   For his service to P&S, the class of 2004 bestowed Fr. Morrissey with its Distinguished Service Award, given to a person class members feel contributed most to help them successfully reach graduation. The person is selected by a classwide poll. “Fr. Morrissey was the run-away winner,” says Chris Kepler’04, who as president of the P&S Club presented him with the award. “It was no surprise. Everyone speaks about him with superlatives.”
   When Fr. Morrissey first came to P&S in 1986, it was on a one-year contract to create AI:MS. The school asked him to live with the students so he would be accessible to them as a nonphysician resource. He has lived in Bard Hall since, filling his apartment, which has a view of the George Washington Bridge, with multiple shelves of books; posters of paintings by Fra Angelico (a Dominican priest who was an early Renaissance artist), oil paintings by Rose Kennedy and Maria Cooper Janis, watercolors by Kay Lemmer, and snapshots of couples, including students and faculty, at weddings where Fr. Morrissey officiated.
   “His success and longevity speak for themselves,” says Linda Lewis, M.D., former dean of students who recruited Fr. Morrissey. At the time, Henrik Bendixen, M.D., former dean of the Faculty of Medicine and chairman of anesthesiology, had been concerned about addiction problems on campus. Dr. Lewis knew about programs similar to AI:MS at other schools and was aware of Fr. Morrissey’s work as a therapist and spiritual director at Vista Sandia Psychiatric Hospital in Albuquerque.
Only a small number of students each year have problems serious enough to require a professional medical evaluation.
  “Vista Sandia had 100 beds. Fifty were for adolescents. Fifty were for adults,” says Fr. Morrissey. “The hospital was small and remote, so a doctor, nurse, or health care professional who was told he or she had to go into a recovery program would come because it was isolated far away from colleagues.” In 1985, Fr. Morrissey spoke at an American Medical Association meeting about how to reach people from all religious backgrounds in recovery by addressing the spiritual aspect of 12-step programs.

Student Participation
An American Priest in Paris

When the Rev. Daniel W. Morrissey is asked about his life outside of Columbia University Medical Center, he has many anecdotes to share. One particular story relates to a 1969 Christmas midnight mass at the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris in honor of the trip that then-French President Georges Pompidou was about to make to the United States.
  Fr. Morrissey, who was in Paris for postgraduate studies, was a friend and religious adviser to the family of R. Sargent Shriver, U.S. ambassador to France. Ambassador Shriver wanted to pay tribute to Pompidou’s visit to the states, and Fr. Morrissey helped organize the mass. Built by Louis IX of France in the 13th century to be a chapel of the royal palace, Saint-Chapelle is a Gothic masterpiece constructed as a reliquary for the Crown of Thorns.
  For the Christmas mass, Fr. Morrissey was given the honor of wearing vestments Henri Matisse had designed for the Dominican nuns’ Chapel of the Rosary at Vence, France. When Matisse was nearly 80 years old, he redesigned the chapel and its religious garb to thank a nurse who had cared for his wife and had subsequently entered the convent. Fr. Morrissey recalls that the courier traveled to Paris carrying the ecclesiastical robe in a suitcase clasped to his wrist by a chain. Other highlights of the mass included Fr. Morrissey using a chalice that belonged to St. Vincent de Paul, St. Jean Vianney’s stole, and Metropolitan Opera soprano Anna Moffo singing Christmas carols.
  At the end of the mass, Fr. Morrissey stood with the diplomatic corps and next to Rose Kennedy, the ambassador’s mother-in-law. She wore a black evening coat trimmed with fur. When a reporter asked her about her coat, she responded, in perfect French, “In honor of the occasion I am wearing a French designer Christian Dior,” Fr. Morrissey recalls.
  “Then I bent down to say, ‘Mrs. Kennedy, in honor of the occasion, I am wearing Henri Matisse.’” —Robin Eisner

Unfortunately, days after Fr. Morrissey arrived in 1986, a student committed suicide. Since then, AI:MS has provided confidential help in an effort to avert such tragedies.
  AI:MS relies on student participation. Each year, medical students elect two classmates, a man and a woman, to be AI:MS representatives to serve throughout their four years of medical school. “Those selected are students classmates feel would make themselves available, respond appropriately to a problem, and, above all, be trustworthy,” says Fr. Morrissey. Representatives from each class meet regularly with Fr. Morrissey. Students in the College of Dental Medicine also participate in the program.
  Students with dependency and compulsive behavior problems generally fall into two categories, he says. Some actively seek help from the student reps or Fr. Morrissey, while others require an intervention. In the latter case, concerns about a student in trouble come to the attention of an AI:MS representative. A student rep and a faculty consultant to AI:MS meet discreetly with the individual and ask him or her to meet with Fr. Morrissey. The next step could be a referral for an evaluation from a professional. In that case, students receive at least three choices of specialized resources. Most of the therapists who work with AI:MS are off-campus professionals who are not faculty members. AI:MS pays for the evaluation.
  “This is a very delicate situation that has to be handled sensitively because a student with a problem might be in denial or feel persecuted,” says Fr. Morrissey, who keeps no written records of AI:MS activities. “We ask the professionals three questions: Did the student contact you? Did the student make an appointment and keep it? Is the student in agreement with your recommendation? We receive no diagnosis and no information on continuing help or therapy. We only make the referral and pay for the evaluation. The bill doesn’t include a student’s name or diagnosis and is destroyed after it is paid.”
  Only a small number of students each year have problems serious enough to require a professional medical evaluation, Fr. Morrissey says.
  “When you think about it, it is amazing that Fr. Morrissey has been working with AI:MS for 20 years,” says Amy Lunding’09, an AI:MS class representative. “He really has made himself available to students, putting them first and not being judgmental. The students really view him as a wonderful resource and are truly thankful to have him here.”

The Journey to Columbia
Vista Sandia Psychiatric Hospital, where he worked before joining P&S, was but one step in Fr. Morrissey’s journey before arriving at Columbia. He was born in Madison, Wis., and grew up in Milwaukee. “My parents were older when they married,” Fr. Morrissey says. “I am an only child.” He attended Marquette University High School and Marquette University, where he studied literature and poetry.
  He wanted to enter a junior seminary when he was very young, but his mother dissuaded him, wanting her son, “a cerebral and sheltered young man,” he says, to experience life. He ultimately was drawn to the Dominican community because he admired its philosophy of a monastic, contemplative life connected to an active ministry. He became a priest because he liked the idea of serving, of “being an intermediary, if you will, between God and people.”
“Becoming a physician is quite a transformation and the questions they ask are crucial to them: How do I learn to treat a patient like a person and not a disease? Should I play rugby if I need to study? What happens if and when I make a mistake? What do I really believe in?”
  To become a priest, he went through eight years of training. After a year as a novice, he took simple vows at the Pontifical Faculty of St. Thomas Aquinas in River Forest, Ill. “Simple vows, which are temporary, last three years,” Fr. Morrissey explains. “I lived with the Dominicans in River Forest, studied philosophy, and was being groomed for the Dominican life.” To become a perpetual member of the Dominicans, he asked to take his solemn vow of obedience. Study of philosophy for three years and theology for four years — all in Latin — were required before being accepted for ordination. He was ordained in 1962 in Dubuque, Iowa. He studied for another year as a “simplex” priest, preached, and celebrated mass but could not hear confessions until the year was over. Between 1962 and 1964, he interned at an Iowa state mental hospital, where he studied the relationship between emotional problems and spiritual health. He also was a curate in an inner city Hispanic parish in Chicago and taught theology at St. Xavier College, a Chicago women’s college.
  In 1964, the Dominicans sent the 28-year-old priest to Paris to continue his education. He studied and later taught theology at l’Institut Catholique de Paris, preached in French and English, and developed many lifelong friendships. He also served as a moral philosophy adviser to Ambassador Shriver during the Vietnam peace talks. Fr. Morrissey returned to the United States in 1970 to become a school minister and to build and chair the department of religion at Philips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. In 1979, he was appointed pastor of St. Thomas More Chapel at Tulane University. Moving to New York City in 1983, he was theologian-in-residence at Riverside Church, a teacher of mystical theology at Union Theological Seminary, a teacher of practical theology at New York Theological Seminary, and a consultant on ethics and values at the Dalton School.
  During his tenure at Columbia, Fr. Morrissey has lectured internationally and served in organizations that deal with ethics and physician licensing. Since 1987, Fr. Morrissey has been a public member of the New York State Board for Professional Medical Conduct, which investigates allegations of misconduct by physicians and can issue disciplinary sanctions. For eight years he served on the board of directors of the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB). He is now the only lay, nonphysician member of the Executive Board of Directors of the National Board of Medical Examiners, the national organization that tests medical professionals. Fr. Morrissey remains active in the Dominican Order and served on its Provincial Council in the Chicago Province from 1999 until 2003.

A Counselor to the Students

Photo credit: Charles E. Manley
Daniel Morrissey with author Joan Didion
Daniel Morrissey with author Joan Didion
Although AI:MS is a vital part of Fr. Morrissey’s work at Columbia, the majority of his time is spent as a counselor to the students, who come from many religious denominations. “He is able to put anyone at ease and can break down any perceived barriers that someone might think exist because of religious differences,” says Tom Karnezis’07.
  “In medical school, students are often judged and evaluated for their technical performance and expertise,” Fr. Morrissey says. “They are in a competitive environment and have to make choices in both their academic and personal lives, which can have far-reaching consequences.
  “Becoming a physician is quite a transformation and the questions they ask are crucial to them: How do I learn to treat a patient like a person and not a disease? Should I play rugby if I need to study? What happens if and when I make a mistake? What do I really believe in?”
  Ernest April, Ph.D., who co-directs the first-year clinical anatomy class, refers a handful of students each year to Fr. Morrissey. “Perhaps a loved one recently died and dissection is raising questions of personal meaning for the student,” Dr. April says. “I can talk about anatomical issues and provide some coping mechanisms as a professional dealing with death, but spirituality concerns are outside my area of expertise. So I send them to Fr. Morrissey.”
  Joan Didion, who gave the Alexander Ming Fisher Memorial Lecture on Death and Dying at P&S last fall and who won the National Book Award for “The Year of Magical Thinking,” received counsel from Fr. Morrissey in dealing with the death of her husband and daughter. “He is our family’s hero,” she says. “I can only imagine how wonderful it would have been to have Fr. Morrissey living down the hall from me when I was in college.”

“Faith in the Study and Practice of Medicine”
Students who seek to delve further into existential questions take Fr. Morrissey’s class, “Faith in the Study and Practice of Medicine,” held in his apartment. The course does not focus on debates in the public sphere, such as stem cell ethics, but is primarily introspective, asking students to consider their relationship to a force greater than themselves, to faith, or to God, while also addressing their purpose as physicians.
  Pietro Canetta’05, a second-year internal medicine resident at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, says the class helped him solidify his feelings about what it means to be a doctor and how to talk with patients about nonmedical needs. “I believe there is something bigger than myself that is a God,” Dr. Canetta says. “That means when I live my life there is some plan. I don’t know what it is but it influenced my becoming a doctor. As a doctor, I am trying to answer a calling and am not just doing medicine because I find it interesting. I am a doctor because I feel I can do good.”
  Dr. Canetta says that by understanding his feelings about himself as a doctor he is better able to respond to patients who ask him: Why is God doing this to me? Why am I suffering? Why am I dying? “I try to be there for patients and be respectful of their concerns besides being as technically good as I can be,” he adds. “I cannot solve all their problems... but I am always thinking about how I can best serve them. Having an opportunity to think about my beliefs and such questions during the class was very helpful to me now.”
  Mr. DeVido, who is at the National Institute of Mental Health doing neuroscience research this year, credits the class for helping him clarify his beliefs, too. “Some would argue physicians should remove personal beliefs from their professional life,” says Mr. DeVido. “I disagree. In fact, neuroscience tells us our emotions are tied to how we think and how we think is based on what we believe. To separate beliefs from thinking is not possible.”
  Mr. DeVido is grateful for the friendship he has developed with Fr. Morrissey and for their repartee and humorous banter, and he calls Fr. Morrissey’s contributions to the students, faculty, and staff members incalculable. “On a public level, as a member of a religious community, he lends moral authority to our ceremonies, making us see what we are doing in terms of greater things,” Mr. DeVido says. “On a personal basis, he has contributed to our growth and development as health professionals in ways that are hard to measure but have great consequence.”