Member of the Month: Sister Rosanne Popp, M.D.

Tags: member of the month, family medicine, rural physician, popp, houston

Member of the Month:
Sister Rosanne Popp, M.D.

Physician serves the needy through religious life, family medicine

posted 02.14.13

From a young age, our February Member of the Month knew she wanted to be a nurse. But after finishing nurse practitioner training, her goal to serve the poor drew her to pursue her medical degree and she found family medicine to be a good fit. In addition to her service as a family physician, she felt called to enter the sisterhood and become a nun.

Sister Rosanne Popp, M.D., started her physician career in a rural community outside of San Antonio, then spent two years working in the colonias along the border in the Laredo area. She then added family medicine to an existing clinic that served the uninsured, immigrant population of southwest Houston and after 10 years of service there, opened a smaller family medicine clinic on the southeast side of Houston, serving the same population.

“Serving an underserved, immigrant population has been a passion since my first days as a nurse,” Popp says. Knowing that she is actually changing lives by offering health care to those who might not have access to it otherwise is “powerful,” in her words.

Outside of her clinic and convent work, she claims to “make a mean chocolate chip cookie” and is such a huge fan of the Houston Astros that she once threw the first pitch at a game.

She attended the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio for her medical degree and completed a family medicine residency at the McLennan Family Medicine program in Waco.

Why did you choose to become a nun?
Being a Nun isn’t a choice; it is a response to a call, God’s call. I liken it to choosing a marriage partner. When you encounter someone (or a way of life) that touches you deeply, you learn as much about that individual/way of life as you can. Then, hopefully with prayer and reflection, you discern if that person or way of life is what will bring peace and joy to your heart. Is this with whom or the way I am called to spend the rest of my life? Is this where God is calling me? And as with any of life’s choices, it is a commitment that is made over and over again as life’s circumstances change.

What is your favorite aspect of working with poor and immigrant communities?
Apart from the obvious ministry aspect, I think for me it is knowing that what we do at the clinic actually makes a difference in people’s lives, that we can offer access and opportunity for health that is not available otherwise, and people really are healthier because of what we do on a daily basis. For me that is powerful.

What makes what you do different and unique from other practices?
First of all, it is a ministry; our goal is not monetary, it is to provide the means for people—no matter what their status—to live a healthy life. We give people an affordable way to get laboratory testing, physical examinations, and medications to care for chronic and acute health problems.

We are patient advocates. We try to discover what obstacles they have to getting access to the care they need. Many times for the immigrant, that means helping them identify resources available and removing roadblocks, such as forms that need to be completed, networking with other providers, and doing a good deal of begging: “Please, can you help me with…?” Over the years we have developed working relationships with many agencies that are willing to help with our mission.

One of the valuable lessons I have learned doing this work is that most people regardless of their education or financial situation in life can and will be healthier if given the opportunity and education. For example, if we teach our diabetics, many of whom are illiterate and indigent, about an appropriate diet and how to choose foods that are within their culture and budget, they will follow their diet, exercise, and control their diabetes. It is a matter of ongoing education and reinforcement.

I have also learned that high-tech medicine isn’t necessary to care for the majority of the illnesses that cause most morbidity and mortality in today’s world. If people can have access to regular medical care and medication, most of the complications that need high-tech care can be avoided.

I think if I have to sum what we do at our clinic, it’s that we provide access, opportunity and advocacy with a strong dose of compassion thrown in.

What advice would you offer to medical students discerning their specialty?
It’s a very different climate of medicine now, which presents challenges to practicing the art and science of medicine. But stay true to your dream and your passion in life and always remember the “real” reason you chose medicine as a profession.

What is the most interesting experience you have had when dealing with a patient?
This is a story of how we not only helped a patient directly but also facilitated access to care. I first saw Maria (not her real name), sitting in the waiting room about a year ago. She had a scarf wrapped around her head. I didn’t think too much of the scarf, it could have been the weather or religious beliefs. In the exam room, I learned the real story. She had a growth on top of her head for about a year and it had gotten bigger. She was embarrassed by her appearance.

Maria went to the local ER and was told she needed an MRI. Of course, there was no money so she did nothing and the mass kept growing until it was the size of a baseball. She came to see us because now the mass was painful, her face was swollen and she had fever; she heard that we help people who don’t have any other way to get help. The mass was obviously infected and in the course of the exam, we discovered that she was an undiagnosed diabetic. What she really needed was hospitalization but she begged us to treat her at the clinic because she didn’t qualify for any type of public assistance and didn’t have money for treatment. We agreed only if she promised to come back the next day, which she did, only now she was worse, her face was more swollen and her fever was no better.

So I made a couple of phone calls and one of our Christus hospitals accepted her. There she received treatment for the abscess, antibiotics, and more education and medication for her diabetes. And she was getting much better.

We thought we were home free until the pathology report came back showing a rare form of cancer that is usually only seen in children. Now what? We explored many options, including sending her back to her country for treatment. But all we encountered were dead ends. Finally after lots of praying and pulling strings, she was accepted for treatment at a local cancer center.

At her visit last week we learned that she had finished her chemotherapy, had a surgical resection, and is awaiting radiation. Her prognosis is good because the cancer was discovered early. Her diabetes is also in good control and she is faithful to her diet, exercise, and medications.

How do you spend your free time?
There is not much of that. I volunteer at a homeless shelter twice a month, do needle work, gardening and walk the convent dog. I’m an early morning runner, but I don’t do marathons! I also enjoy trying new recipes in the kitchen and have been known to make a mean chocolate chip cookie.

The most important resource AAFP and/or TAFP offer me is:
In the big picture, I am grateful for all the advocacy, lobbying, and legislative work that they do (that is not something I have a passion for). But on a more personal basis, the educational opportunities AAFP and TAFP offer are always excellent. I have used the Essentials/Audio programs for years, not just for CME credit but because of their excellent content. I have attended courses in various specialties and the review course and always come away with ways to make my practice better and updates on the latest in diagnosis and treatment, which is more than I can say for some other CME conferences I have attended. I really appreciate the work that TAFP and AAFP put into these courses.

Tell me something fun (unrelated to medicine) about yourself.
I, along with another sister, have started a fundraiser called the Nun Run. This fundraiser pairs motorcycle riders with nuns. The riders have breakfast with the retired nuns, take them for rides around the grounds, and then many of us (nuns) join the bikers on a 50-mile ride to Galveston. They don’t let us actually drive the motorcycles but we get to ride on the back of the bikes. This year I had the privilege of being on the lead bike with a police officer with a procession of over 300 bikes following us. Now that is a sight! I even have my own helmet and biker jacket.

Another random useless fact is that I am a great Astros baseball fan and on my bucket list of things to do was to throw out the first pitch at an Astros game. A couple of years ago, a friend was able to make the dream come true. I was so excited; I practiced for a week so that I wouldn’t bounce the pitch to the plate!

TAFP’s Member of the Month program highlights Texas family physicians in TAFP News Now and on the TAFP website. We feature a biography and a Q&A with a different TAFP member each month and his or her unique approach to family medicine. If you know an outstanding family physician colleague who you think should be featured as a Member of the Month or if you’d like to tell your own story, nominate yourself or your colleague by contacting TAFP by e-mail at or by phone at (512) 329-8666. View past Members of the Month here.