One Valley doctor turns to religion to help his patients
Seventy-two percent of the respondents said they believe that praying to God can cure someone.
Dr. David Tellez slowly kneels down beside the bed of a 14-year-old boy inside a dimly lit hospital room and cups his hands in front of his face. After a small prayer, Tellez holds the mother’s hands as the constant beep of the respirator breathes air into her son’s lungs and echoes down the hall of the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
Side by side, the two pray again for the health of the woman’s son as he lies motionless in his bed. The mother clutches Tellez’s hand as tears roll down her face. A severe asthma attack has left the boy in a coma, fighting for his life. “He is going to be fine, you just have to have faith,” says Tellez, a pediatrician in the ICU. “We have done all we can, so it’s up to us to believe everything will work out.”
According to a recent Newsweek poll, 72 percent of Americans said they would welcome a conversation with their doctor about faith. And because of Tellez’s strong faith, he is doing exactly that here in Phoenix.
Tellez, a Christian, said the practice of medicine can go only so far. “Doctors can provide people with some of the best care and medicine possible, but sometimes it takes a little dose of faith to get them back on their feet,” he said.
Tellez, who has been practicing medicine for 23 years, said he asks to pray with all his patients. “I think that a belief in any religion is important for someone who is battling an illness.”
In the Newsweek poll, 72 percent of the respondents said they believe that praying to God can cure someone, even if modern medicine fails.
“Now I am starting to see more people become open to the idea of praying at the patient’s bedside,” Tellez said. “These families are more than just a name on a clipboard. It is a hard time for them, and I just want to let them know that they don’t have to go through it alone.”
Nine months in ICU
The religious medallion hangs over the side of the boy’s bed to protect him from harm. For the next nine months, ICU staff will help him make a complete recovery.
“We were looking for any kind of help,” said Barb. “My son wasn’t in good shape, but he was in good hands, both here and in heaven. The hospital atmosphere can be hectic and unsettling, so it is nice to see a doctor who notices the person behind the illness.”
A new vision
So in 1993 he began creating the Neighborhood Christian Clinic in central Phoenix. “It is something that God put in my heart,” Tellez said. “I had no idea how to run a clinic, but I knew it was something I had to do.
“Noah had no idea how to build an ark when God ask him to create one, so I realized that I did not need to be a clinic doctor in order to make this happen.”
Over a five-year period, Tellez met with 10 doctors and personnel to figure out how to make this dream a reality. Tellez’s vision finally came to fruition in May 1999 inside an 1,800-square-foot abandoned apartment near Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
“Our motto is to equip health care professionals to share God’s love,” Tellez said. “It is not about how many people we can treat. It is about teaching health care professionals how to treat people and spread that knowledge to others.”
Surrounded by old, rusted buildings, the office space was the last place someone would think to find a medical clinic. The clinic provided both medical care and dental services for those who could not afford insurance.
Prayer and medicine
But after a few years, the clinic outgrew the small apartment building. “We could see the sky through the roof, but it wasn’t because we had a skylight,” Tellez said sarcastically.
With the help of donations and volunteers, a new clinic opened in October 2003. Located near Van Buren Street and 21st Avenue, the 5,500-square-foot facility is fully equipped with a chapel, pharmacy, exam rooms, dentist chairs, and medical equipment.
More than 170 volunteers and a five-person full-time staff help run the clinic. All the volunteers and staff are trained how to pray and share the gospel in order to work at the clinic.
“This clinic is possible because of the hard work of caring and passionate people,” said Dr. Paul Lorentsen, director of the Neighborhood Christian Clinic. “We have people come in to the clinic and pray for all of the patients while they are being seen by the doctors.”
Lorentsen, who has been involved with the clinic since 1999, said that if people have a positive outlook about themselves, they stand a better chance of a good recovery. A cross adorned the wall of the small chapel room with chairs for those who need to pray as he walked to one of the examination rooms.
“It doesn’t matter what religion they are or what health problems they might have, [the volunteers] want to do whatever they can to make the patients feel better,” said Lorentsen as he cleaned his stethoscope. Every Wednesday, those seeking treatment line up in the waiting area for a lottery to take place. Due to high demand, the clinic gives patients numbers to determine the order in which they are seen.
While the doctors and staff help people in the clinic, none of their work would be possible without help from the community. “I believe health care and God go hand in hand,” said Mike Smalley, who works at KB Homes and has been donating money to the clinic since 1999. “Most hospitals and clinics only deal with the physical ailments, but the Neighborhood Christian Clinic helps with the physical and spiritual needs of the patients.”
“Doctors can heal the physical problems, but having a clinic that focuses on the healing power of God really impresses me,” he added. “I think that if I believe I will get better when I am sick, I will have a better chance to recover from any injury or illness.”
Smalley, a Christian, attends church regularly. It could prolong his life according to a recent study by the National Institutes of Health. People who regularly attend church have a 25 percent reduction in mortality and live longer than people who are not churchgoers.
“I am not surprised by this statistic,” said Natalia Argel, a pediatric nurse at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. “I think there is a strong correlation between the mind, body, and spirituality. People who have religion or spiritual background are able to tolerate or overcome many adverse conditions or illnesses.”
Argel has been a nurse for 14 years and said prayer is beneficial during times of crisis. “It [praying] is an added strength that does not require money or pills. All you need is faith,” Argel said.
Even though prayer is not mandatory for hospital employees, Argel said that having doctors or medical staff pray with their patients would be beneficial. “I have prayed with my own physician and found it to be very comforting,” she added.
A medical miracle
Tellez looks at Barb with a slight smile. “I know it looks like things aren’t going to turn out all right,” he says. “If you never give up hope and ask God for help, he will answer you, one way or another.”
Suddenly, the boy’s eyelids begin to flutter. As his eyes open completely, he regains consciousness for the first time in five days.
“The first time he opened his eyes, I knew I had my son back,” Barb said. “It was hard seeing my son lying there and knowing that I could not do a thing.”
Doctors found no evidence of brain damage, but the boy was paralyzed from the neck down after the severe asthma attack. Hopkins disease is a rare form of polio that causes paralysis in an extremity after a severe asthma attack. There are only about 24 known cases in the world, but Barb’s son has a more unique form of Hopkins. He is the only person in the world with paralysis in all four limbs.
Seven years later, he is still paralyzed, but everyday he thanks both God and Tellez for saving his life. How do I know?
Because that boy is me.
The Devil’s Tale showcases the coursework of individual students at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication.
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