Living Richly

Angie Bymaster chose a different path than most doctors – and she couldn’t be happier

By Jeremy Lloyd

Most doctors drive expensive cars, send their children to the most prestigious schools, and reside in big houses in upscale neighborhoods. Angie Bymaster has none of these things, and quite frankly, prefers it that way.

“I think I would hate it,” says Bymaster, who graduated from George Fox in 2000 before completing medical school at the University of Iowa and taking a job at the Valley Homeless Healthcare Program in San Jose, Calif. “Of all the places I could live, I think a wealthy neighborhood would make me so terribly sad.”

“That’s probably something I need to work on,” she adds, laughing.

But don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. Bymaster and her husband, Brett, an electrical engineer, live in a modest home with their four children – three adopted Sudanese refugees, ages 21, 16 and 13, and her 22-month-old son – in a San Jose neighborhood plagued by poverty and gang violence. Both work part time.

“His engineering job and my doctoring job are kind of our second jobs,” explains Bymaster. “Our first job is our family and our community, and working toward the Kingdom of Heaven within that.”

“There is no stereotypical homeless guy”

Bymaster couldn’t be more content with her neighborhood or her job, which brings her into daily contact with the people who need her most: the mentally ill, drug addicts and recently released prison inmates. All are homeless, and most haven’t seen a doctor in years.

There are no appointments at the free clinic – “Our patients don’t have calendars,” she quips – so each day they gather in the waiting room to be assessed by a triage nurse, and those in the greatest need of treatment are seen first. Every day brings a new cast of characters into Bymaster’s life.

“Almost every day something really interesting happens, which is what I love about my job,” she says. “You just don’t know what to expect.”

She recalls one patient who had been stabbed in the chest, and another who had severe trench foot and was practically catatonic with depression. Still others live in isolation in a nearby creek and haven’t seen a doctor in decades, “and their systolic blood pressure is 250, and they have really ridiculous vital signs.” And then there are the recently released prison inmates who experience anxiety trying to cope with the outside world, and the schizophrenics who think the FBI is following them, and the addicts who have seen their lives destroyed by drugs and alcohol.

“There is no stereotypical homeless guy,” she explains. “Every time you think this is what the homeless are like, then the next guy is going to blow that out of the water.”

Some of their stories are funny, many sad, and sometimes, Bymaster is given a chance to affect real change in a patient’s life that goes beyond physical healing.

“I love treating addiction,” she says. “There’s this freedom that you don’t see with other diseases, where they become so happy and so free, their heart just starts to soar when they’re able to get away from a substance.”

“It ruined me for the gated-community life”

Ironically, Bymaster grew up on the not-so-mean streets of Roseburg, Ore., a small town that lays its claim as the “Timber Capital of the Nation.” It was in this rural setting – where her church had a hand in supporting many of the local shelters – that she first became comfortable interacting with the homeless.

Later, during her time at George Fox – where she was exposed to new ways to serve and encouraged by her professors to follow God’s plan for her life – Bymaster really began to identify her calling.

The chemistry major and writing/literature minor recalls having her views on God challenged by Bill Jolliff and Ed Higgins, engaging in theological discussions with Carlisle Chambers, getting advice about medical school and her future plans from Dwight Kimberly, and enjoying the spontaneous moments when Bob Harder would “stop the class and just talk about the awesomeness of God, because some concept of physics was so cool.”

Bymaster’s relationship with her advisor, Paul Chamberlain, was especially impactful. “I remember once he told me that he thought I would be a good doctor, and that was really special to me.”

Soon Bymaster began joining other students on regular Friday night visits to a homeless outreach site. “God convicted my heart that this should be a normal part of my life,” she recalls.

Then, during her junior year, she joined a George Fox serve trip to Oakland, Calif., where she was first introduced to the Mission Year program, in which young people are tasked with living in innercity neighborhoods for a year and serving those in need. “At the beginning of the week I thought, ‘These people are totally crazy,’ and then by the end of the week I felt compelled that I needed to do it.”

After graduation, Bymaster immediately joined the program, living with a group of six on a limited budget for a year in Oakland. She recalls hearing gunshots at night, always feeling anxious, and wondering, “‘What is it like to be a child growing up in this neighborhood?’ We could leave if we needed to, but that was home for them.”

“We experienced living among the poor and getting to know what they go through, what their life is like,” continues Bymaster. “I think it ruined me for the gated-community life.”

“This is where God wants us”

It may sound like she’s giving up a lot, but Bymaster doesn’t see it that way. After all, the schools in her neighborhood are full of immigrants who are learning English as a second language (just like her adopted Sudanese kids), her family is fully immersed in the local community, and she and her husband are able to focus on their children and ministry without the time restraints of full-time jobs.

Bymaster and her family are thriving in the most unlikely of locations, but it’s a place where they feel perfectly at home.

“We really enjoy our life,” she says, “and we also know that at anytime God could move us somewhere else, and have us do something different. I think we have a good deal of contentment in that. But right now, we feel very much that this is where God wants us.”