LAW & LOVE: Attorney Lives Out Faith Helping Patients
At Texas Children’s Hospital, just down the street from University of St. Thomas, alumnus Thomas Mendez ’09 uses his skills as an attorney to help care for patients. Seeing cases like a child with asthma living in a home with mold, a patient with special needs who turns 18 and still needs guardianship protection, or parents facing eviction while their child receives life-saving treatments, Mendez solves legal issues for patients as part of providing holistic healthcare.
Mendez is a medical-legal partnership attorney, embedded with hospital social workers and working closely with the TCH medical team. While his office is at TCH, he is employed by Houston Volunteer Lawyers, the nonprofit arm of The Houston Bar Association, to recruit and train pro-bono attorneys to represent patients and families who need legal remedies.
Seeing patients struggle with complex medical diagnoses is difficult. That’s when he embraces his Catholic faith.
“Bishop Barron says one of the hardest challenges to grapple with is sin and evil in the world — people who are suffering and have done nothing to deserve this,” Mendez said. “That’s one reason I love the Catholic faith, because we embrace that suffering. You don’t have the resurrection unless you have the crucifixion.”
Mendez said many people he works with are one tragedy away from their whole life unraveling. In recognizing their suffering, he is able to see Christ in his clients.
“A lot more people than you think just get by,” he said. “The resiliency of people is incredible. They just get through, and they also are joyful.”
A Desire for Connection in the Church and Around the World
A Spanish-speaker, Mendez’s father is from Colombia, but he learned Spanish in college and polished his language skills while pursuing a year of graduate studies in Argentina on a Rotary Foundation scholarship. As part of his studies in international political economy, he took his first law class.
He planned to travel for a year after his time in Argentina, and spent time in Sri Lanka and Bangkok, until his grandmother became sick. Then he decided to stay closer to home and follow in the footsteps of his mother, alumna Terri Clarke Mendez ’92, who went to law school while the younger Mendez was in elementary school.
“I always thought the law was black and white, and I realized that there was a lot of opportunity for creativity and helping people,” Mendez said.
Usually dressed down in slacks and a dress shirt with rolled-up sleeves to make his clients feel comfortable, he is mindful about seeing the dignity of people he helps.
His interest in making connections started in high school on mission trips. It continued at UST as he led the MicroCredit Program, now known as the Social Entrepreneurship Program, and helped connect people who needed material assistance with students, entrepreneurs and donors.
“UST gave me a good liberal arts education in international studies and the Honors Program,” he said. “I learned to think critically and make connections across disciplines, and that’s really important to what I do now. It’s not a tangible skill, but it’s the most important skill I learned.”
Taking classes like Fr. Joseph Pilsner’s Social Justice in the Catholic Church also helped him understand those experiences in light of Catholic social teaching, seeing the struggles people face and how members of the Church can carry faith into the modern world.
‘Faith is a Journey, Not a Place’
While in college, Mendez said he was Catholic nominally, but the seeds planted there continue to bloom. In January 2019 he and his wife, Sarah, met Pope Francis while on their honeymoon to Rome, and last fall they welcomed a daughter, Maxine.
Through it all, Mendez said faith is a journey, not a place, and he is learning to trust God and find joy like his clients, even when he doesn’t know the path.
“The biggest thing I try to do — and I fail at every day — is to do everything I can do to the best of my ability and trust the rest to God,” he said. “Seemingly bad things can turn into great things.”