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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Doctor and priest Stan Malnar brought compassion to mothers and families from births to deaths

Father Stan Malnar helps serve a meal to the homeless at the House of Charity on Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Stan Malnar has a story he likes to tell about his first day working in a hospital.

He was a young medical student at the University of Washington on his first clinical rotation at Sacred Heart Medical Center.

He was asked to examine a young girl who was skin and bones. He’d been told she had cystic fibrosis, and panicked.

“I couldn’t remember what cystic fibrosis was,” Malnar said. A review of her symptoms didn’t jog his memory. Worried about looking like a failure, he put a stethoscope on her back and tried to listen for her heart. But he couldn’t hear anything.

The patient’s nurse was Teri McCandless.

“Teri came over and whispered in my ear that my stethoscope would work better if I put it in my ears,” Malnar said, laughing. Normally, a story like that would travel to the nurse’s station in a matter of seconds. But McCandless told Malnar she wouldn’t tell anyone.

It’s a lesson that stuck with him through his career.

“The graciousness of that is when you see someone in their vulnerability, you hold them in care,” Malnar said.

Malnar is something of a rarity: a Roman Catholic priest who is also a medical doctor.

Starting in 1989, he ran the maternity clinic at Sacred Heart serving low-income women, worked at Hospice of Spokane helping families say goodbye to loved ones and spent his spare time giving homilies and volunteering at House of Charity.

He’s not sure how many babies he delivered during that time, but his best guess is a few thousand.

“There’s no doctor in Spokane and probably no doctor in the state of Washington and maybe no doctor in the country that has delivered more babies from low-income, homeless, at-risk teens than Father Dr. Stan Malnar,” said Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities Spokane.

Malnar wanted to be present for each woman who came to him. Often, they were in the second trimester of pregnancy, with no prior prenatal care. Many didn’t have any support from the baby’s father or anyone else. Some were addicts in recovery.

He started those appointments the same way.

“I would always say, ‘What’s it like to see a doctor who’s a stranger to you?’ ” he said. “ ‘What’s it like to see a doctor who’s a man?’ ”

He would listen. And then he’d talk through their questions and concerns. “Tell me about you,” was another favorite opener.

“You cross that landscape with them, which also suggests they can cross any landscape with you,” he said.

He would write down his phone number on paper towels and give it to his patients, telling them to call if they ever had any questions.

“The nurses would know it was authentic because it was on the paper towel,” he laughed.

And whether he was on call or not, he came in for the delivery, often working seven days a week.

“His commitment to his patients was second to none,” said Susan Stacey, the chief nursing officer at Sacred Heart.

Malnar didn’t make every birth, but he estimates he was there for 85 to 90 percent of the women he cared for.

“They’re just wonderful. I was so lucky to take care of them,” he said.

His presence at Sacred Heart went beyond the clinic.

Mike Wilson, the hospital’s former president, recalled asking Malnar for his blessing in 2014 before Wilson had a knee replacement surgery. Sure enough, Malnar showed up in the operating room.

“Stan gave me a blessing and in the middle of it, the surgeon walked in, and for probably the first time in his 30 years of surgery, Stan blessed him,” Wilson said.

As for the surgery? It “went perfectly,” Wilson said.

Steve Brisbois, an obstetrician who first met Malnar when the priest was a fellow, said Malnar made himself available around the hospital.

“He’s full of love, and so if somebody was having a hard time or a hard day, a difficult medical case they were dealing with, you know, ‘Where’s Stan? We need Stan,’ ” Brisbois said.

Malnar was ordained at 26 and never thought he’d end up being a doctor. But his training for the priesthood included a summer in a clinical pastoral rotation, working with a psychiatric team at a hospital.

The director of the program told him he should go to medical school, though Malnar said to this day he isn’t sure what the man saw in him. He asked his bishop for permission and applied, graduating from the University of Washington’s medical school in 1981.

He wanted to go into psychiatric medicine, but found he loved everything, so he switched to family medicine. After school, he did a fellowship at Sacred Heart focused on obstetrics in 1984. After a few years working in Kalispell, Montana, the hospital asked him to come back and run the maternity clinic.

“He called me his mentor, and I was his mentor in teaching him things about medicine. But he was my mentor in teaching me about compassion,” Brisbois said.

A demanding schedule of births and prenatal care wasn’t enough for Malnar, so he also worked weekends at Hospice of Spokane, where he helped prepare patients and families for death. As a priest and a doctor, he felt he was able to provide a listening ear while also explaining the medical details of what patients could expect.

“You want people to be recognized and honored in their living and their dying, and you don’t want anyone to be alone,” Malnar said.

He feels blessed he was able to be there for people.

“The great gift of medicine and priesthood allowed me to enter people’s lives at significant moments,” he said.

Sacred Heart named the maternity clinic for Malnar in 2014, explaining they didn’t want to make the mistake of waiting to honor him until he was gone. He retired from the clinic in 2016 after some health challenges made him realize it was time.

But those who know him say he’s working as hard as ever.

Molina Healthcare awarded Malnar its Community Champion award this fall for his years of service. Jorge Rivera, director of community engagement for Molina Healthcare of Washington, said Malnar was nominated by three separate people.

“It’s hard to tell how many hours he works … and how much is volunteer work because he’s just always there helping,” Rivera recalled being told by a Catholic Charities board member.

Malnar has been a longtime member of the Catholic Charities board, and McCann said he played a significant role in getting Spokane to reapprove funding 24-hour shelters across the city.

McCann, who’s known for his impassioned, sometimes fiery personality, said Malnar was always game to attend meetings with politicians.

The doctor and priest, known for his quiet voice, would never get angry. But the collar and medical degree carried a weight that came with him into the room.

“He’s such a gentle, quiet, soft-spoken guy. He would never put the fear of God into anyone. But that was his power,” McCann said. “He always has a very good way of taking very complex situations and issues and boiling down to love and service and compassion.”

He still works at the House of Charity, serving lunch twice a week. Most clients don’t know he’s a doctor or a priest, but when they find out, they tend to ask him the same question: Should we call you Father Malnar or Doctor Malnar?

“I’ve heard people ask him that question for 20 years and he just says, ‘You can just call me Stan, how about that?’ ” McCann said.

Malnar hasn’t been back to the clinic that now bears his name since his retirement. He teared up when asked about it.

“It’s too hard. I miss it,” he said. He wants to give the staff and new director space to do their work without feeling like they’re beholden to his legacy.

He’s able to say four or five Masses a week now. And he has a bit more spare time, which he uses to read works on theology.

Malnar said he’s lucky to be among the people who are recognized for their work to never turn people away, whether it’s from housing or food or maternity care. But Spokane is full of social workers, child care providers, housing specialists and ordinary people who are doing work he thinks is every bit as important as his.

“It’s a big group, but a lot of those people who do it day in and day out never get recognized,” he said.