Faith is integral to Mercy spine surgeon's practice

February 1, 2015

By JULIE MINDA

Dr. Charles Edwards II's Christian faith is central to his medical practice at the Maryland Spine Center at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.

Dr. Charles Edwards II
Dr. Charles Edwards II
(Photo credit: Kevin J. Parks/Mercy Medical Center)

Alongside the popular magazines in his waiting room and exam rooms the orthopedic surgeon provides Bibles and spiritual books. During medical exams, he may inquire of a patient whether and how she is drawing on her spirituality in coping with her spine problems. Before surgeries, he asks his patient and her loved ones if he can pray with them. Each Thursday, he takes time away from the spine center to pray, read the Bible and mentor others.

The 44-year-old has worked at the spine center that his father founded and directs since 2002; and he has been medical director of the spine center's clinic since 2006. The center is headquartered at Mercy, and Mercy provides some of its back office functions. Edwards, who describes himself as "a nondenominational Christian," presented a seminar at Mercy, attended by about 50 people, on "A Surgeon's Journey of Faith Through Medicine." He explained to Catholic Health World how and why he weaves his faith into his medical practice:

Did the fact that Mercy Medical Center is a faith-based facility influence your decision to work at its spine center?
While at Mercy, God has brought me into relationships with a few Jesuits and sisters on staff who have had a major impact on my outlook on medicine. Through their living example and dedication, I began to see medicine as far more than a job — more than a profession, but primarily as a ministry. I came to view it as my calling to serve God through caring for His people.

How do you integrate your spirituality into your daily work?
When I encounter a challenging problem, I am quick to pray for wisdom and discernment. I encourage my staff to be mission-focused and regard each patient as a hurting brother or sister and not as a mere task or responsibility.

How do you broach the subject of spirituality with a patient?
Individuals come to see me for the evaluation and treatment of their spinal disorders, and not for spiritual matters, and I respect that. I am thus careful not to spend too much time on a spiritual assessment, but I can do an assessment by being a good observer.

When I first meet each patient, I do a brief spiritual inventory, looking for clues by who referred them, what books they are reading, whether they have picked up one of the Bibles or spiritual books in my exam rooms, whether they speak using spiritual terms, jewelry that they are wearing.

Whenever I recommend a surgery with significant risks, I always raise questions of faith, peace with God and feelings about death. I also ask each patient if I can pray for him or her prior to surgery. In the past 5,000 surgeries, I have only been turned down once.

How do you pray with patients?
I let the spirit guide my words. I typically thank God for the blessings in the patient's life, their family and their good years. I recognize the value that God places in each person and the purposes that he has for each of our lives. I thank God for giving us the opportunity to use our time and talents to make a difference in this world and to share his love with those around us. I pray that God would bless the patient with strength and a quick recovery, that I would do excellent work with wisdom and skill and that the family members would receive an extra measure of patience and encouragement for the phase of recovery ahead.

How does spirituality connect to patients' treatment?
My first commitment to my patients is to provide superlative spine care with an emphasis on education and surgical prudence. By introducing God into their spine challenges, I equip them with an added source of strength and encouragement.

The degree to which I delve into spiritual discussions with a specific patient is guided by nonverbal clues from them — such as dress, reading material and countenance — their response to subtle spiritual references that I sprinkle in my communication with them, God's guiding of me in each particular circumstance and the relational capital that I have with the person.

How do you approach the topic of spirituality with patients whose faith background differs from yours?

I approach each of my patients with respect and appreciation for the precious and complex person that they are. Although each of us is unique, we are all the same with respect to God's love for us and his desire to be in a deep relationship with each of us. Jewish patients are almost always very welcoming of my spiritual conversation and prayer. Muslims are less consistent. Sometimes my sharing goes no further than a compassionate provision of medical care in an openly Christian environment.

What convinces you that spirituality has an impact on healing?
I receive regular thank you notes from patients and families expressing deep gratitude for the time that I spent with them, the empathy that I convey, the focus that I provide for them as a whole person with a caring family and community and the appreciation for the time spent in prayer.

Do you think your approach is common among clinicians?
My sense is that my approach is unusual. I'm aware that several of my colleagues are strong believers and pray with their patients, but I don't get the sense that it is the norm (to be overt about faith with patients).

How does your faith make you a better scientist?
I have a long-standing interest in the advance of medicine through research and teaching. The more I learn about the intricacies of human anatomy and physiology, the more I am inspired and impressed by its magnificence. Its amazingly complex yet logical design and adaptability leave me in awe and reverence. My motivation for research is therefore not inspired alone by a desire to serve patients better, nor to merely expand the frontiers of knowledge, but to gain a greater appreciation for the attributes of our creator through a deeper understanding of the creation.

What would you advise your colleagues in Catholic health care about making spirituality a priority in their work?
The tradition and living examples of the sisters and priests are a tremendous encouragement to me. I saw how they have devoted their lives to living out their ministerial service. We lay believers have no less responsibility to do the same.

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