Priest or physician? Physician or priest?
It was a decision that Jacob Villarama, a devout Catholic, wrestled mightily with during his undergraduate years at UNLV and for the better part of a year after he graduated.
Graduating magna cum laude from UNLV with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences in 2018 didn’t make the decision any easier — nor did acceptance into the 2023 class at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV.
Hours and hours of prayer hadn’t provided an answer.
“I emailed Ann Diggins, (then) the director of admissions, about my situation and let her know about my difficulty in making a decision. I told her I should withdraw my acceptance so I would not take a spot from someone else who was sure about becoming a physician.”
Villarama said that after Diggins talked with him she said there was a good chance he could defer his admission for a year. Deferrals, she said, weren’t common, and generally given as a result of serious life events, often illness of the applicant or of the applicant’s family.
“They are not given out so someone can lay on the beach for a year,” said Diggins, who is now director of student affairs and career services at the medical school. “I saw in Jacob's case he was really wrestling with something important in his life and his deferral was approved.”
Villarama, now a proud member of the medical school class of 2024, is the son of Filipino
immigrants who came to the U.S. and Las Vegas searching for better opportunities for their family. His father, a lab technician in the Philippines, has worked in the casinos as a dealer. His mother is a registered nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit at UMC. He says seeing her helping people in her profession “primed me to want to go into health care.” So did a surgeon’s care of a knee Villarama hurt playing basketball. As he excelled in school, which made a dream of a career in medicine a real possibility — he graduated with high honors from the College of Southern Nevada High School — he also became more involved in the Catholic church’s outreach programs, engaging in charitable efforts and lending a helping hand to the poor. Promoting and advocating for man’s humanity energized his soul.
As an undergraduate at UNLV, he found himself not only becoming more interested in medicine through volunteering in the UMC emergency department, but also more engaged in the affairs of the Catholic faith as he volunteered to feed the homeless on the historic Westside of the city through the Las Vegas Catholic Worker house. “I was strengthening my faith, and my interest in medicine.”
Time to ponder
With the deferral approved and a bachelor’s degree in hand, Villarama decided to enter the Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon. The seminary, Villarama notes, serves as a testing ground for men to discover what they believe God is asking of them, a process known as discernment. He said if a seminarian does not become a fully ordained priest it is not seen as failure, but providence, or God’s will.
“The decision to be a priest or to be a doctor to me is less of a step-wise formulaic process in which one solely decides what they want to do, but rather a response to a specific call that comes from God,” Villarama said. “My time in seminary was spent growing in intimacy with God so that I could know his voice better to determine what my calling was. At first, going to seminary was terrifying; it was my first time living outside of Vegas. I ended up loving my time in seminary. The landscape was breathtaking, the opportunities to pray and grow closer to God were plentiful, and the intimate community I lived with was full of love.”
During his time in prayer at the seminary, Villarama said he still hadn’t been able to make a decision as of early 2020. “As part of my deferral, I was given a deadline of March 1 to let the school know if I was going to return to join the upcoming cohort. Once February came, I started to feel the pressure and anxiety simmering over the looming decision. I didn’t want to make the wrong decision. Through time in prayer, I began to feel that God was calling me to return home to medical school and to serve Him in this way, but I was still unsure.”
It was during a snowshoeing trip in the mountains near Bend, Oregon, that Villarama said he finally decided to become a physician as he prayed inside a retreat center, where a crucifix was prominently displayed inside the chapel.
“I remember gazing at the face of Jesus, a face filled with love, but also with much suffering and anguish as he hung on the cross. One of my favorite saints, St. Therese of Lisieux, once had a vision where she saw Jesus on the cross and watched as his blood fell to the earth. She recounted that she had longed to catch and collect every single drop that fell from her Lord’s body. As I was reflecting on her experience, I began to long to do the same. I could not bear to see the face of Jesus in such excruciating pain; I desperately wanted to do anything to help relieve it. This was the moment I knew to return to medicine.
“As I gazed on his suffering face, I heard in my heart Jesus telling me that I could alleviate his suffering by alleviating suffering in his people, that his blood courses through the blood of all his children, and that by caring for them, I care for him,” Villarama said. “Jesus often told his disciples that whatever they do for another, they do for him. As I looked on the physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds of Jesus, I could not ignore the physical, emotional, and spiritual wounds of every human heart, and I knew that medicine was the best way for me to soothe these wounds.”