Yay! Dallas paper examines heart and soul

It’s becoming clear that The Dallas Morning News has no regard for the F-word.

Faith, that is.

I made that statement last month after the Texas newspaper allowed holy ghosts to haunt yet another major profile.

But I come today not to bury the Morning News, but to praise it: Apparently, somebody at the highest echelon of that newspaper reads GetReligion and decided to prove me wrong.

This was the headline at the top of the front page a week ago Sunday:

Healing with heart and soul

The 1,800-word story profiles Mark Pool, a heart surgeon who prays with patients. The lede:

At 83, Carl Smith found himself facing quadruple-bypass surgery and the real possibility that he might not survive.

Within hours on this spring morning, Dr. Mark Pool would temporarily bring Smith’s heart to a stop in an attempt to circumvent its blocked passages.

And to help his patient confront the uncertainty, Pool did something unusual in his profession: He prayed with him.

From there, the story (most of which is hidden behind a paywall) immediately presents the meaty nut graf:

The power of healing: Medicine and religion have both had their day, and they haven’t always been able to coexist. But as today’s medical treatment becomes more holistic, doctors are increasingly taking spirituality into account.

Studies show a majority of patients want their spirituality recognized, and most med schools now have classes related to the topic. In general, the new thinking asks doctors to note their patients’ spiritual leanings and open doors to expression, especially when life is at risk.

Now, if I’m the editor, I highlight “both had their day” and suggest that the writer come up with something less cliche.

By the “increasingly taking spirituality into account” sentence, I make a note: “How do you know this?” (In other words, I ask for attribution.)

And by the vague “studies show,” I demand to know which studies — or at least one. Give me some specific information about the study (or studies): Who did the study? When? Who did they study? What did they find? Etc. Etc. Etc.

But in general, I praise the reporter effusively for going behind the scenes and putting real human faces — the surgeon and the heart patient —  on a compelling religion, and medicine, story.

I compliment the fact that the story treats Pool’s faith with respect and gives him an opportunity to describe his beliefs and perspective while at the same time providing different points of view from other medical experts. This is what is known in some circles as JOURNALISM.

More from the story:

Pool, a highly regarded heart and lung surgeon at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, is fervent about his Baptist faith. For about a year, he’s routinely asked patients if they’d like him to pray with them pre-surgery — a gesture he says is always appreciated but one that exceeds advocates’ suggested bounds.

“A physician should be open to a patient’s spirituality but shouldn’t push religion on patients,” says Nathan Carlin, assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. “That’s confusing personal and professional roles.”

An inherent power differential divides doctors and patients, says Christina Puchalski, director of George Washington University’s Institute for Spirituality and Health and co-editor of the recently published Oxford Textbook of Spirituality in Healthcare.

“They’re coming to us for something other than prayer,” Puchalski says. “If I, as a patient, perceive [a surgeon] as having my life in his hands, and he asks me to pray and I say no, he may not treat me well. And that’s putting undue pressure on the patient.”

Another representative section of the story:

You could say Pool comes from a religious background. His father, his grandfather, his father-in-law, his brother-in-law: all ministers. The family joke was that he started going to church nine months before he was born.

By age 6, he was well versed in Bible basics, but then something odd happened. One day at a prayer meeting, Pool says, he was touched by — well, not quite a vision, but an awareness.

“I had already understood that Jesus came to save the world,” he says. “That was nice. But then I understood: Jesus came to save me. And that changed everything.”

He’s pursued a path of faith ever since. Medicine seemed like a good way to help people. Even so, as a med student, Pool pondered ditching the whole thing to go to seminary instead.

As a member of First Baptist Dallas, he and wife Jessica lead relationship classes on Sundays for dozens of young married couples. Even in his crisp, black-patterned suit, Pool is impossibly youthful — lean and rosy-cheeked, posture straight as a fence post.

And as a cardiothoracic surgeon, another realization has set in: “I have a ministry. I don’t need to be standing in a pulpit. I have found a ministry I did not expect. I am able to minister to people in times of need.”

Since Texas Health is a faith-based hospital system, he felt at ease taking that step.

“The vast majority of people believe in God,” he says, “and yet when people come to the hospital, that’s completely ignored by doctors. If anything, they call the chaplain. It’s unfortunate that more doctors don’t try to engage that part of a patient’s life.”

Kudos to the Morning News for getting religion in this in-depth Sunday story. I’d love to see it happen more often.

Image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Kevin Spencer

    Here, here to the well written story.

    An excellent journalist in full research mode, I imagine, would have capped the story by noting that the earliest hospitals were founded BY religious ministries. The “either/or” fallacy of religion and medicine did show its face in the story, but at least the notion wasn’t taken for granted.

  • Richard Mounts

    A good story well done!

    So what’s next? The newly purchased (and soon to be renamed) WaPo to apply journalism to stories about “social Issues. Naaa. Not in a million years.


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