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Dr. Douglas Heimburger: An Interview on Faith, Health, and Healthcare during the Pandemic

Transcribed and edited by Grace Liu, Andrew Warren, & Yuhang Zhang

What can the COVID-19 pandemic teach us about health and healthcare? What deeper realities have been uncovered about the nature of suffering and true flourishing? How can the Christian worldview offer insight and hope in this current public health crisis?

We recently spoke with Dr. Douglas Heimburger, Professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and core faculty in the Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health (VIGH).

Dr. Heimburger supports VIGH’s education and training programs for Vanderbilt students and trainees, as well as research training opportunities for doctoral and postdoctoral trainees from other institutions and other countries. His principal research and publication interests are nutritional influences on responses to treatment for HIV/AIDS in developing countries and global health education. Dr. Heimburger is also a member of the Medical Christian Fellowship.

*This interview has been edited for clarity.

What is the Medical Christian Fellowship and why did you get involved?

Medical Christian Fellowship exists as an organization to mentor medical and nursing students, and I got involved with Medical Christian Fellowship because my main professional engagement over my whole career is really focused on mentoring people. Teaching, mentoring, training, nurturing people in the health professions—both in medicine and in public health. I’ve learned that I love to encourage and mentor students and to be able to do that in the context of a university that’s training a lot of students in the health profession.

How does your Christian Worldview affect your practice of health and healthcare?

It begins with really informing my understanding of who we are as people—made in the image of God and individually very special and precious to God. Therefore, we should be precious to those helping with health.

Another interesting thing is that my shift from a medical orientation to a global health perspective got me thinking more about populations rather than just individuals. Medical and nursing students are trained to work with individuals, while public health is about populations, and there is some really important theology that undergirds that.

While we are all individually created as image-bearers of God, he doesn’t only care for us as individuals; he also cares for us as a collective people and as a community. Public health is so much more about community than it is about individuals, but in many cases, our American values are all about individual liberty. We’re seeing a lot of that play out in our responses to the pandemic.

A biblical understanding is that God sees us both as individuals and as members of various communities. He cares about us in both contexts, and the bedrock theology there is the Trinity—there is one God in three persons. That really undergirds a “one and many” approach to Christians in health and health care.

What is the proper Christian prioritization of health, given that we are called to die to ourselves and suffer with Christ?

It’s a very important part of theology that should inform any Christian in health professions. What is suffering? What brings it about? The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis is very helpful and informative for these questions.

It’s really important that we don’t misunderstand suffering in either ourselves or in others. I don’t think that Jesus is telling us that we need to seek opportunities to suffer, but that we shouldn’t assume that we are being punished for something or that we’re underneath the thumb of God and are out of his favor. We need not to be asking why this is happening—because so often God doesn’t give us an answer to that question—but rather, ask, “God, what am I to do in the midst of this? What do you want to teach me? What do you want me to do within this context that I’m in?”

That’s true whether one is suffering for Christ explicitly or is caught up in a pandemic. (A good resource is the book “Where’s God in the Pandemic?”, written by theologian N.T. Wright the week after the pandemic really got going.)

How should we understand physical health in the context of eternity? Some argue that the only thing that matters is people’s souls, so why are we spending time healing them physically instead of addressing spiritual needs?

It first requires a theological correction: saying that the only thing that matters is our soul is a misunderstanding of Biblical theology. God loves his creation—all of it. He loves us and he cares that we are healthy and that we take good care of ourselves and our environment. There are plenty of Scriptures that correct the Gnostic approach.

If only after going after Heaven were really Biblical theology, then Christians would not have gone into the health profession and founded so many hospitals all around the world. God sees us as whole, body-spirit-souls, and he cares about it all. We as Christians and as health professionals should care about it all, including the environment. We need to care for our environment in such a way as to promote health within ourselves and within our population.

I’ve thought a lot about end-of-life ethics, which reminds me of one of my favorite Scriptures, Hebrews 2:14-15, which says:

“Therefore the children share in flesh and blood. He himself likewise partook in the

same things that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of

death, that is the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death are subject

to life-long slavery.”

Verse 14 reminds us that Jesus took on flesh and blood and all of our physical limitations. If the body didn’t matter, he surely wouldn’t have chosen to take that route and die a painful, physical death for us. Somehow, in God’s economy, he had to do it that way for us to be really redeemed. He redeemed the body and was raised bodily as an integral part of redemption for us. So helping people maintain health is Kingdom work because God cares about our bodies, our spirits, our minds, and our souls as well.

I also found those two verses so liberating, because fear of death is a huge motivator for people. One of the most wonderful gifts of the gospel is the ability to be delivered from that fear of death, because we know Jesus has gone before us and that he has taken the hit that we deserve. Being united to him really enables us to be freed from lifelong slavery to fear of death.

How can people not directly involved in the healthcare profession help care for the health of others?

One of the major transformations that has happened in medicine is that the practice has moved far away from, “The doctor is right, do what they say,” towards a team effort, whether we’re dealing with populations or individuals. We’re much more explicitly trained to see ourselves as a team rather than as a hierarchy and to embrace inter-professional approaches.

Those teams really need to involve people who are not highly trained health professionals—people with various levels of training, including lay people. Child life specialists, for example, are trained and certified to help children with their fears as they encounter the healthcare system, particularly if they’re hospitalized. Helping the child and the parents not be terrified and to reduce stress as much as possible is part of the health profession, but it’s a very specific job that’s neither a physician nor or a surgeon or a nurse.

I love how healthcare has evolved to be more focused on teamwork and to involve the diverse roles of different people. Frankly, one of the things that all health professions and schools have discovered is the importance of being inclusive with regard to sex, gender, ethnic background, and so on, and of loving others with whom we might disagree, working agreeably and cohesively together as teams. It’s important to be intentional about helping women and people from minority backgrounds move into leadership positions. Medicine used to be a males-only profession, but it’s anything but that now, and we’re all the better for it.

What advice would you give to students seeking to pursue a career in healthcare?

To Christian students, I would say be engaged in fellowship, and find a mentor to guide you along. Begin developing habits and ways of being and thinking and doing as early as possible. Also, read some good books about health, and develop a theology of health and disease. I spent a gap year reading about Christian theology and the epistemology of science and digging into the philosophy and history of medicine before jumping into actual training of the profession.

Also, think about populations. One of the avenues that some medical students take is to get MPH and MD degrees, which help you learn both about patient care and the global health practice. Working with really underserved populations is great, as everyone you are taking care of is uninsured.

Traveling to immerse yourself in a culture with different resources and needs than those of the United States is also a really valuable experience. In my last year of medical school, my wife and I spent three months in India. It was a rich learning experience in all kinds of ways. While I didn’t do anything specifically in global health for many years after that, I knew that to be satisfied professionally and to fulfill my calling, I had to be intentional about moving into a more global space.

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