Medicine and religion: Should doctors pray with patients or take spirituality into account?

By Marc Ramirez

Dallas Morning News

Published: Saturday, Aug. 10 2013 6:10 p.m. MDT

"God, thank you for Mr. Smith. We ask that you would guard his life, keep him safe and bring him through this operation. Replace any anxiety that he may have. Give him a great assurance of your love and your power.

"I ask you to watch over our team, that you give us all clarity of thought, that you guide my hands as they move. We pray these things in Christ's name. Amen."

"Amen," Smith says.

Later, as Smith's family awaits the outcome, his wife says: "I have never had a doctor do that. It just meant so much to us. We just thought it was sent from God."

At 6:45 a.m., Pool starts in, using a tiny electric saw to patiently work through Smith's chest and breastbone.

The arteries he wants dangle inside like strings of soaked cooking twine above Smith's quivering lungs. He snips one end of each, then applies small plastic clamps to stop the thin spurt of blood.

"See that?" he says. "That's the blood flow that will be going into the heart."

A shot of potassium literally stops Smith's heart cold, temporarily abdicating its work to a heart and lung machine. To the heart, Pool will divert the snipped arteries, and repurpose a vein taken from Smith's leg, to offset the blockages within.

But first he has to open the heart's protective sac, unveiling the still-beating organ as it heaves inside. Pool eases it to one side, to reach a portion underneath — and in that moment, Smith's heart, the force pumping blood and oxygen throughout his body, rests in Pool's cradling grip.

Out in the family waiting area, Smith's son Scott says: "God has his hand on everything. He's in control. We're not. It's in God's hands."

Pool initially wondered if his praying might give patients pause, whether they'd worry he wasn't confident enough in his own skills to get through the surgery.

"It's been the opposite," he says. "They value the humility."

Last year, Shea Bowen of Kaufman had just delivered a son at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Rockwall four weeks early. Suddenly, she became short of breath. Tests revealed a tumor in her heart.

She was rushed to the network's Dallas hospital, where Pool met with her and her husband. She was shaking then, a complete wreck.

"It was terrifying for me," Bowen says. "I had to leave my few-hours-old baby. We knew there was a chance that … Not everyone comes out of surgery.

"Dr. Pool could tell. His words were 'I don't know if you guys believe in God, but I do,' and as soon as he said that, we both burst into tears. He said, 'I can cut and I can sew, but God is going to heal you, and I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that happens.'

"There's a lot that's a blur, but I remember the comfort of knowing the person who was literally going to stop my heart and cut me open was going to do that for me under God."

Not long ago, Pool contacted a local evangelistic organization. "So I could up my game," he says. He wants to learn how to share his faith without being a "turn or burn" proselytizer.

"I wouldn't want for somebody to make a decision in a moment of crisis that they wouldn't make otherwise," he says. "I don't want to say, 'It's your last chance: Smarten up or else.'

"It doesn't mean I can't share my faith just because it might upset somebody in the world. This nation was founded on Christian ideals."

Pool pauses when asked if he'd pray with followers of Islam, a faith he considers antagonistic and unforgiving.

"I don't think they would get the same meaning" from it, he says. "Not that they would feel offended, but … not comforted."

He tries to avoid a holier-than-thou air and — with patients, anyway — doesn't claim only certain believers get into heaven.

"It's not my job to get somebody to make certain decisions," Pool says. "All I can do is live a life that makes it appealing to somebody and then share it with them. If I share and they say, 'I'm not interested,' I say no problem and move on. But seeds can be sown that you never see the fruit of."

A success story

Smith's operation was a success. Six weeks later, Pool meets with him one last time.

"You're doing extremely well," Pool says. "I'm going to fade away now. You don't have to come back and see me."

"I'd be 6 feet under if it wasn't for you," Smith says.

Pool dismisses the thought. "I'd like to say a prayer with you," he says.

Smith bows his head and closes his eyes.

"Lord," Pool begins, "thank you for getting Mr. Smith out of the hospital and getting him home. We ask that you continue that process of healing and give him a spring in his step once again. In Jesus' name we pray."

Smith is upbeat. He believes the gesture will help him get better. And in the end, that might be the most important thing of all.

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