Called to Heal

Moorestown deacon applies medical training to missions, hospice

January 13, 2024 at 9:00 a.m.
Dr. Bertagnolli helps carry donated rice with one of the missionary brothers. Courtesy photo
Dr. Bertagnolli helps carry donated rice with one of the missionary brothers. Courtesy photo

By EMMALEE ITALIA
Contributing Editor

The following story is part of BE INSPIRED, a new feature of The Monitor reporting on ordinary people who inspire others through their extraordinary stories. 

Twenty-five years ago, when Dr. John Bertagnolli, Jr., D.O., told his wife, “I’m going to go on a mission trip,” she was immediately taken aback.

“She thought I hit my head — she’s a neurologist,” quipped the osteopathic doctor. “I had no idea how to get there, I just knew I had to go.”

That day in 1998 was inspired by a Catholic-based missionary agency advertisement in a bulletin from the couple’s Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Moorestown.

Ever since then, Dr. Bertagnolli has been offering medical assistance annually on mission trips primarily to Kingston, Jamaica. He also has lent his medical expertise to the hospice field, encountering people during some of their most physically challenging times.

Board-certified in family medicine and hospice and palliative care, Dr. Bertagnolli is a team director at Samaritan Healthcare & Hospice in New Jersey and a recently retired professor of family medicine at the Rowan-Virtua School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford. Since his ordination in 2011, he also has served as a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Trenton, at his home parish.

Experience Like no Other

Even as a doctor and a member of the clergy, the experience of making that first mission trip to Jamaica was sobering and challenging.

“We worked in shelters for the homeless, physically and mentally challenged adults and children,” he explained.

And in so doing, he began to see the dire need for medicine and other supplies that could improve their quality of life.

After examining sick children — and finding that nothing could be done for many of them — a missionary invited him to help feed the children a meal.

“He showed me these green trash bags [of food donations] and told me to take whatever was in the bags and put it in a blender,” Dr. Bertagnolli explained. “They were filled with light yellow wafers with vanilla crème — I had to blend and feed this slop to the kids. I said, ‘This will never happen again.’”

Dr. Bertagnolli now travels with whatever supplies, both food and medical, he can bring. Mailing supplies has proven to be challenging, as often two-thirds of what is mailed is confiscated and ends up on the black market. He also makes himself available in his other God-gifted role as a deacon, serving as a deacon at daily Mass during his mission trips.

The annual trip expanded to include not only parishioners, but also medical students and residents from the hospitals where Dr. Bertagnolli works and teaches.

“Some former students that are now physicians come from all over the country to travel with us,” he said.

Accompanying the Dying

Dr. Bertagnolli’s work in hospice – care that focuses on comfort and quality of life of a person with a serious illness who is approaching the end of life – also began in the late 1990s as an offshoot of his work with Rowan’s house call program, in which some 500 patients received in-home medical care. Dr. Bertagnolli introduced hospice to the medical school and helped expand the program of study.

“I work for the oldest hospice in New Jersey,” he said. “We do not assist with MAID (Medical Aid in Dying); we make people comfortable as they go through the dying process.”

New Jersey is one of 10 states in which MAID is legal, but Dr. Bertagnolli said many families do not realize the hospice options of medicine, massages, music, visits from clergy and social workers. “Once the families are educated in what it offers, the overwhelming majority stay with hospice care.”

Another mission volunteer and Dr. Bertagnolli demonstrate to children at the orphanage that the nebulizer mask is not scary and that they can safely use it. Courtesy photo


Merging of Ministries

“Being ordained a deacon sort of brought everything full circle with my house call program and mission trips,” he reflected. “I’m asked many questions about how I would handle health-related issues, if it were my family … Many patients chose me as their physician because of my background as a deacon, and knowing I teach at a medical school, and have to be up to date.”

Dr. Bertagnolli has also medically treated priests and religious sisters in Jamaica. His hospice experience came in handy when he assisted one of the elderly Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, who host the mission volunteers. 

“Her doctor was surprised at some of the things I was doing to make her comfortable through the night,” he recalled. “She said, ‘I never saw anyone die so peacefully.’” She asked to join him for a couple of weeks in the United States to learn how to better care for her patients in Kingston.

For his dedication oversees and in hospitals throughout South Jersey, Dr. Bertagnolli was recognized with the St. Luke Award for medical excellence Oct. 22, during the Diocese of Camden’s annual White Mass honoring medical workers. The awards are sponsored by the South Jersey Catholic Medical Guild of the Diocese of Camden and VITALity Catholic Healthcare Services.

Life-changing work

Father James Grogan, Our Lady of Good Counsel pastor, joined Dr. Bertagnolli on a 2005 mission trip; at the time, Father Grogan was still a permanent deacon and the doctor was not yet ordained.

“That trip transformed me, and now as pastor looking back, I can count dozens of parishioners who have made the trip with Deacon John and witnessed the need of our brothers and sisters,” Father Grogan attested. “For each of the parish missionaries, this trip changed how we view the world. It has become a way of taking action to witness the Gospel. I suspect that his serving others in Jamaica, as well as his medical specialty of hospice care were influences on his own vocation to the permanent diaconate.”

Dr. Bertagnolli has witnessed missions and hospice work transform his own life and those of other volunteers. “Sitting by the bedside of someone who’s dying is not for everyone, but for me, it’s an honor to take care of these people.

“I really haven’t heard of a bad experience [volunteering for the missions],” he continued. “Everyone that goes down there has a little bit of an epiphany.” For his students, he said, “I think it brings out the empathy that they didn’t know they had — that’s something you can’t teach.”


Dr. John Bertagnolli Jr. receives the Saint Luke Award from the South Jersey Catholic Medical Guild and VITALity Catholic Healthcare Services during a White Mass in the Diocese of Camden in October. Debbie Troy photo / Catholic Star Herald

 Related "Be Inspired" stories:

Genocide survivor shares merciful message in visits with local parishes




The following story is part of BE INSPIRED, a new feature of The Monitor reporting on ordinary people who inspire others through their extraordinary stories. 

Twenty-five years ago, when Dr. John Bertagnolli, Jr., D.O., told his wife, “I’m going to go on a mission trip,” she was immediately taken aback.

“She thought I hit my head — she’s a neurologist,” quipped the osteopathic doctor. “I had no idea how to get there, I just knew I had to go.”

That day in 1998 was inspired by a Catholic-based missionary agency advertisement in a bulletin from the couple’s Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Moorestown.

Ever since then, Dr. Bertagnolli has been offering medical assistance annually on mission trips primarily to Kingston, Jamaica. He also has lent his medical expertise to the hospice field, encountering people during some of their most physically challenging times.

Board-certified in family medicine and hospice and palliative care, Dr. Bertagnolli is a team director at Samaritan Healthcare & Hospice in New Jersey and a recently retired professor of family medicine at the Rowan-Virtua School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford. Since his ordination in 2011, he also has served as a permanent deacon for the Diocese of Trenton, at his home parish.

Experience Like no Other

Even as a doctor and a member of the clergy, the experience of making that first mission trip to Jamaica was sobering and challenging.

“We worked in shelters for the homeless, physically and mentally challenged adults and children,” he explained.

And in so doing, he began to see the dire need for medicine and other supplies that could improve their quality of life.

After examining sick children — and finding that nothing could be done for many of them — a missionary invited him to help feed the children a meal.

“He showed me these green trash bags [of food donations] and told me to take whatever was in the bags and put it in a blender,” Dr. Bertagnolli explained. “They were filled with light yellow wafers with vanilla crème — I had to blend and feed this slop to the kids. I said, ‘This will never happen again.’”

Dr. Bertagnolli now travels with whatever supplies, both food and medical, he can bring. Mailing supplies has proven to be challenging, as often two-thirds of what is mailed is confiscated and ends up on the black market. He also makes himself available in his other God-gifted role as a deacon, serving as a deacon at daily Mass during his mission trips.

The annual trip expanded to include not only parishioners, but also medical students and residents from the hospitals where Dr. Bertagnolli works and teaches.

“Some former students that are now physicians come from all over the country to travel with us,” he said.

Accompanying the Dying

Dr. Bertagnolli’s work in hospice – care that focuses on comfort and quality of life of a person with a serious illness who is approaching the end of life – also began in the late 1990s as an offshoot of his work with Rowan’s house call program, in which some 500 patients received in-home medical care. Dr. Bertagnolli introduced hospice to the medical school and helped expand the program of study.

“I work for the oldest hospice in New Jersey,” he said. “We do not assist with MAID (Medical Aid in Dying); we make people comfortable as they go through the dying process.”

New Jersey is one of 10 states in which MAID is legal, but Dr. Bertagnolli said many families do not realize the hospice options of medicine, massages, music, visits from clergy and social workers. “Once the families are educated in what it offers, the overwhelming majority stay with hospice care.”

Another mission volunteer and Dr. Bertagnolli demonstrate to children at the orphanage that the nebulizer mask is not scary and that they can safely use it. Courtesy photo


Merging of Ministries

“Being ordained a deacon sort of brought everything full circle with my house call program and mission trips,” he reflected. “I’m asked many questions about how I would handle health-related issues, if it were my family … Many patients chose me as their physician because of my background as a deacon, and knowing I teach at a medical school, and have to be up to date.”

Dr. Bertagnolli has also medically treated priests and religious sisters in Jamaica. His hospice experience came in handy when he assisted one of the elderly Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, who host the mission volunteers. 

“Her doctor was surprised at some of the things I was doing to make her comfortable through the night,” he recalled. “She said, ‘I never saw anyone die so peacefully.’” She asked to join him for a couple of weeks in the United States to learn how to better care for her patients in Kingston.

For his dedication oversees and in hospitals throughout South Jersey, Dr. Bertagnolli was recognized with the St. Luke Award for medical excellence Oct. 22, during the Diocese of Camden’s annual White Mass honoring medical workers. The awards are sponsored by the South Jersey Catholic Medical Guild of the Diocese of Camden and VITALity Catholic Healthcare Services.

Life-changing work

Father James Grogan, Our Lady of Good Counsel pastor, joined Dr. Bertagnolli on a 2005 mission trip; at the time, Father Grogan was still a permanent deacon and the doctor was not yet ordained.

“That trip transformed me, and now as pastor looking back, I can count dozens of parishioners who have made the trip with Deacon John and witnessed the need of our brothers and sisters,” Father Grogan attested. “For each of the parish missionaries, this trip changed how we view the world. It has become a way of taking action to witness the Gospel. I suspect that his serving others in Jamaica, as well as his medical specialty of hospice care were influences on his own vocation to the permanent diaconate.”

Dr. Bertagnolli has witnessed missions and hospice work transform his own life and those of other volunteers. “Sitting by the bedside of someone who’s dying is not for everyone, but for me, it’s an honor to take care of these people.

“I really haven’t heard of a bad experience [volunteering for the missions],” he continued. “Everyone that goes down there has a little bit of an epiphany.” For his students, he said, “I think it brings out the empathy that they didn’t know they had — that’s something you can’t teach.”


Dr. John Bertagnolli Jr. receives the Saint Luke Award from the South Jersey Catholic Medical Guild and VITALity Catholic Healthcare Services during a White Mass in the Diocese of Camden in October. Debbie Troy photo / Catholic Star Herald

 Related "Be Inspired" stories:

Genocide survivor shares merciful message in visits with local parishes



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