Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Faith in the Workplace:
‘You treat every person with maximum respect’

Story and photo by Mitch Finley, Inland Register staff

(From the Aug. 3, 2006 edition of the Inland Register)

Dr. Greg Jones MD

You would think that a Catholic physician wouldn’t have much difficulty relating his work to his faith. Virtually all of a doctor’s work hours are directed at caring for and healing the sick, aren’t they? What could be more in the spirit of the Corporal Works of Mercy than that? Greg Jones, M.D. belongs – with his spouse, Anne Claire Buckley Jones, a daughter age 17, and a son age 12 – to Spokane’s St. Ann Parish, and he isn’t so sure about that.

After a few years working in a family practice in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and 15 years as an emergency room physician, for the last five or six years Greg has worked in a wound healing center at Spokane’s Deaconess Medical Center. “We focus,” he says, “on patients with vascular disease, diabetes, poorly healing surgical wounds, and issues that come up often from other treatments – surgery, radiation, that sort of thing. The patient population that I see is predominantly old people and people with complex medical problems. I see patients every day; I see them in our hospital and in our out-patient clinic.”

Still, Dr. Jones doesn’t think it’s automatic that his work is an expression of his Catholic faith. “I think anyone is on thin ice with that line of thought,” he says. “That’s an easy out. It would be easy to say that what my profession is, or my vocation is, is healing the sick. I think the fact that I’m making a living at it takes a little bit out of looking at it as my vocation or my mission. I think that’s too easy. If I was trying to decide what is the purpose of my existence it would be hard for me to say that practicing medicine, healing the sick, is the gold star on my crown in heaven. And quite frankly, I think a lot of patients would agree. If you ask a patient, ‘Who are important spiritual people in your life?’ I don’t think many of them would say, ‘My doctor.’ Some of them would, but I don’t think many would.”

He says that he doesn’t walk into his workplace and think, consciously, about putting his work and his faith together for what he’s about to be doing. He explains that frequently he hears the voice of his late father, who was a dentist, saying, “You treat every person with the maximum respect which they should be accorded.”

“If the patient is a doctor, or a professor, you call them by their title,” Dr. Jones continues. “And you don’t call anybody by his or her first name until you’re invited to use their first name. That’s a building block, and that’s something that has stuck with me for many, many years, and I think that’s important.”

When it comes to professional and patient relationships, Dr. Jones says that he was profoundly influenced by the late Jesuit Father Tony Lehmann, of Gonzaga University. “If you boil that down,” he says, “it’s this: If you establish a relationship then you have established something of substance.”

When he worked in an E.R., Dr. Jones says that it was different trying to apply Father Lehmann’s example than it is in his current work situation. “In an emergency department it’s an entirely different thing. You can still establish a relationship of the moment, but that’s acute intermittent care, and they come and they go, and the pace is different, and moving people is part of the job, and the better you do that the better you’re able to perform your duties.”

In Dr. Jones’s current work situation there is more possibility for a continuing relationship with patients because they often need to return for care over a longer period of time. “One of the big advantages is that they are older people,” he says. “There is a richness to their experience that they bring to the relationship. So I try to treat people with respect and be responsive to them. My responsibility is to give everybody my best, and not to write anybody off, to do what I say I’m going to do. For example, if I say I’m going to call you next Tuesday with your results, then I’m going to do that. I’m going to keep my log by my telephone and at the end of the day return emails and return phone calls.

“That seems basic,” he said. “That’s my job, I’m supposed to do it that way. But there are enough different things coming in that it’s hard to do. And people are very understanding. ‘Oh, I know you’re busy. It’s okay that you didn’t get back to me.’ I find myself apologizing a lot of times. But that is a built-in easy out. It’s too easy. ‘I am too busy to return your calls,’ or ‘My nurse will do it because I can’t get to it.’ And everybody says, ‘That’s fine, that’s the way it goes.’ Well, that shouldn’t be the way it goes. There should be a conscientious effort at establishing a relationship with somebody.”

This, Dr. Jones says, is where faith and spirituality really enter into a doctor’s everyday work. When a physician takes the trouble to do what it takes to nourish a relationship with a patient, that, he says, is when people will “tell me their problems that they probably wouldn’t tell somebody else. You’re dealing with people’s bodies, and that’s a kind of a sacred place to be. So that opportunity for relationship is there. So the patient needs to trust me, but I have to prove to him or her that I’m trustworthy.”

Does prayer ever enter into Dr. Jones’ medical practice? “Do I pray with my patients?” he asks. “No. Would I be comfortable doing that? I’m not comfortable initiating that. I hug my patients all the time, and I shake their hands, and I meet their daughter or son that brings them in. I use expressions my father used all the time. ‘Oh, bless your heart, honey.’ ‘God love ya.’ That sort of thing, and those words just come right out when I start getting some of that closeness.”

At times, Dr. Jones prays for his patients. “I’m like the average person in that regard, he says, “because a lot of us pray only when we have no other recourse, rather than on a day-to-day basis of a relationship with God. But I have prayed for my patients, and I have talked with my family before we begin our evening meal prayer. I’ll say, ‘Let’s remember this person who has this problem.’ That sort of thing.”

Some Catholics bring into their work space a sacred object or two that reminds them of their faith. Dr. Jones says that he regards the photos of his wife and children as sacred objects. “Also,” he says with a chuckle, “recently a patient brought me a little dashboard Jesus. I don’t have crucifixes around, and I don’t have a holy water font.”

Time management is, in a very real sense, a spiritual discipline for many Catholics, especially when it comes to balancing work, family, leisure, and faith enrichment. “I have to give credit to my wife,” Dr. Jones says. “It would be very easy for me to be totally immersed in medicine. I left the family practice I was in for that reason, because it was too demanding on my time. And it would have been a very satisfying life for me.”

A physician’s work is best done with understanding, empathy, respect, and compassion. At the same time, like everyone a doctor has limits. In the E.R., Dr. Jones says, “I cried with families, telling them that their son, or daughter, or father, or whoever, wasn’t going to survive, or didn’t survive. Now, in my current practice, there are times when I have to say, ‘This is too far gone, you need an amputation.’ Or, ‘This person is too old, and too sick, and we have to change our goals. It’s not a legitimate goal to get this thing to heal. What we need to do now is we need to manage it, so how do we make it possible for the caretaker to not go crazy, and how do we keep the family member/patient comfortable?’ It’s much easier to do this when you have a relationship with people. It does make you suffer more, but I think that early on in medical practice you have to learn that you can’t absorb everybody’s misery. You have to be part of it, but you can’t own it. I think this is a lot different than being callous.

There is something ministerial feeling about this.”

Relationships with co-workers are also basic to living one’s faith in the workplace. “We have weekly meetings,” Dr. Jones says, “where all we do is talk about issues, solve problems, talk about patients whose problems are difficult to deal with, get one another’s ideas, and report back the next week. We have a big emphasis on communication and relationships in the workplace. I don’t think that is something that just happens, I think that’s something that has to be worked at.”

In his present practice, he says that he is frequently impressed by “the richness of old people.” Thinking back to the days of his residency, he remembers times when ambulance radio calls would come in, and the message would be something like, “We have an 84-year-old patient coming in. . .” “I remember that even then,” he says, “my immediate thought would be, ‘If you’re 84 what could possibly be an emergency?’ In the E.R., it’s uncommon to have two days in a row without someone coming in who’s 100. But in what I do now, it’s so fun to engage old people and listen to their stories. There is an amazing amount of richness. And with age comes a whole different bend on courage. About 10 years ago, I started asking people, ‘What are you most afraid of?’ They’ll say, ‘I’m not afraid to die.’ I don’t know anybody in their 80s who says, ‘I’m afraid of dying.’ They say, ‘I’m afraid of what can happen to me before I die.’”

For Dr. Greg Jones, the heart and soul of the matter, when it comes to living his Catholic faith in his workplace, is relationships, pure and simple. And the reason this is so, he says, is “because the only concrete presence of God in our lives is through relationships; there are moments when the face of God is looking back at me, but it’s only if I’m engaged in a relationship with that person. That’s where meaning is, and where there is meaning there is faith, and there is spirituality, and there is knowledge that there is much more beyond this life that we’re living right now.”

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