Cardiologist John Dormois is taking a leap of faith. On July 16 he will close his thriving South Tampa medical practice to attend divinity school at Duke University.
After 35 years of caring for patients' bodies, Dormois, 65, wants to broaden his focus to caring for their spirits. He believes he can best do that by teaching medical students something he feels is lacking in the current curriculum: compassion.
A native of Kansas City, Kan., Dormois has practiced medicine in Florida since 1975. He and his wife of 12 years, Joan, were on a house-hunting trip in Durham, N.C., when we caught up with him recently by phone.
How did you come to this decision?
It had been a thought for about three or four years after I became interested in end of life care, something few people prepare for. I have seen a lot of heartache and pain because that whole process was not handled well by patients, friends, relatives, pastors. I started thinking, wouldn't it be interesting to have a greater understanding of medicine and spirituality? I wondered, how do you combine medicine and theology? The closest thing to it would be a hospital chaplain, so I took a course at Tampa General Hospital on being a chaplain. Every Tuesday, for nine months, I worked as a chaplain at TGH. I started last September and finished this past April.
What was it like?
I was not identified as a doctor. I got to watch other doctors, nurses, patients as a bystander, not as someone directly involved in their care. It was extremely enlightening. What I learned was stark. Patients would tell me things I know they never told their physicians. I would give them the opportunity to talk about their feelings, thoughts, fears, concerns, the faith anchor in their lives. They revealed things that doctors rarely have time to listen to: important things that doctors don't have the time to sit and hear. Those things often get passed over, and it turns out those things are incredibly important, almost as important as the medical care they are receiving. That just brought it home to me how important issues of the spirit are, and I use spirit as a generic term, not tied to religion.
Can you give me an example of what a patient shared with you as chaplain?
I recall vividly one man awaiting a liver transplant. As I entered his room, I inquired how he was doing. He looked at me with a look of desperation and said, "I'm afraid of dying." The physician's likely response would be to reassure that everything was being done, it didn't look all that bad, etc. The chaplain's response, on the other hand, would be to explore his feelings surrounding the issue of death. What makes you so afraid? Is it the finality, separation from loved ones, concern about pain and suffering, or issues of spirituality? A few weeks later I visited the patient after his successful liver transplant. The first thing he said was how much it had helped him to have been able to unload his anxieties about death.
You said that you hope to teach medical students about spirituality. Why take three years for divinity school?
Because if I'm going to combine medicine and spirituality in any way, then I need credentials - some certification that will give me credibility to teach. Most of the 175 students in my class at Duke will be going into traditional ministry, church work. I'm not headed in that direction. It will be a form of ministry, just in a different context.
What do patients need that you hope to bring to the table?
A whole lot more compassion. Doctors need to understand that this is a human being in crisis and not just a heart muscle that has been damaged. This is a human being with hopes and fears and emotions that need to be acknowledged. So often the tests and tubes and scans take over, and the patient and family are left on the sidelines. I'd like to see that process change, and I believe it has to be done early in medical training. I know how people in my life have said or did something that really, really mattered. I think I can do that for someone else. If I can profoundly touch 5 percent of a medical school class, it will be huge.
Will you come back to Tampa after you complete the program?
I don't know. Duke is really making a big effort to bring the medical and divinity schools closer together. There might be an opportunity to teach there. Other physicians at Duke share these interests of mine, and they are interested in developing the same kind of program for medical students. So, I'm going to do this and see what happens. Medicine has been a wonderful career, but at this point in my life, I don't have to achieve anything in particular. I planned for retirement, so the pressure is entirely different. I can enjoy the educational experience and see where it all takes me.
Irene Maher can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3416.
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Keep up with Dr. Dormois
To learn more about the doctor's decision to go to divinity school, and to follow his path there, check in with the doctor's blog: divinitymd.blogspot.com.