Charles Petit, MD, like many healthcare professionals, spends a good deal of time addressing the needs of the underprivileged. Since 2004, he has taken up the cause of the indigenous Miskito Indians of Puerto Lempira, Honduras. He is putting his own money into developing a modern clinic and international medicine program there.
But medicine isn’t his only mission. Dr. Petit, 56, a hospitalist at Palmetto Health Care’s Richland Memorial Hospital in Columbia, S.C., is also an Episcopal priest.
He joined Palmetto Health Senior Care as its first medical director in 1988 and reconnected with the group in 2004—not in his previous role as an office-based physician but as a hospitalist. In between those stints he pursued his ordination and medical missionary work in Africa and Latin America.
As a physician, Dr. Petit says he feels God’s presence at each patient’s bedside. Years ago he wondered how to handle that.
To deepen his connection between medicine and spirituality, he lived in a Christian intentional community in Indiana, Pa., from 1981 to 1988. Gradually, his views on medicine and spirituality crystallized.
“How does God do what he does?” Dr. Petit wondered. “Can medicine put Him to the test? I have seen that prayer works, including a patient miraculously healed of metastatic ovarian cancer. But God isn’t a vending machine. You don’t drop in a prayer and get a healing back.”
The Second Calling
Recognizing he needed something more to integrate medicine and spirituality, Dr. Petit sought a firmer grounding in religious studies.
He moved to Simpsonville, S.C., in 1995 and entered the Episcopal seminary, working as an emergency department doctor to pay the bills. Later, he earned a master’s of divinity from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., in 2003.
His spiritual “internship” was a transitional deaconship from 2003 to 2005, under the Rev. Michael Flanagan, rector at Simpsonville’s Holy Cross Episcopal Church. Both had dual vocations—Flanagan was an engineer who sold electrical equipment for 10 years before ordination. Prior to meeting Dr. Petit, Flanagan was leery of the doctor’s ability to balance pastoral and medical duties.
“Would he be a doctor/priest?” Flanagan wondered. “A priest/doctor? His desire was to meld both and he did. Medicine and spirituality are both in his blood. He sees both as calls from God and connects medicine with spirituality into a holistic view of each person.” He says Dr. Petit “seems to know everything and sucks up knowledge, which he wants to share. He loves being the doctor and having the knowledge to fix the patient’s problem.”
While Dr. Petit keeps his hospitalist and priest roles mostly separate, working with elderly patients sometimes requires the skills of both disciplines. At Richland he wears a clerical collar on pastoral rounds. If a family or patient asks him to pray with them or discuss life’s ending, he does. He has conducted funerals for his own and colleagues’ patients.
“It’s a very powerful experience being both a priest and a doctor,” he says. “I grow so close to the patients and their families that it is natural for me to serve in both roles.”
As a seminarian, Dr. Petit took medical mission trips and briefly supported an African orphanage, looking for a cause to call his own. Until his first trip to Puerto Lempira, a village on the Miskito Coast of the Atlantic Ocean.
The abject poverty and medical needs of the Miskito Indians there pulled at him. Early on he enlisted the help of Ennis Whiddon, a builder and Holy Cross parishioner. Whiddon, who usually accompanies Dr. Petit to Puerto Lempira, says of his friend: “I knew him as [an emergency department] doctor first. Then I realized his extraordinary spiritual commitment. I went to Puerto Lempira on his first mission trip and I asked myself why anyone would want to be there, but I knew Chuck couldn’t bear not to be there. I also knew he wasn’t just going to give people two aspirins, come home and pray for them.”
Dr. Petit returns to Puerto Lempira three or four times a year with a team of doctors, seeing several hundred patients a day. During one two-week stint he dispensed $200,000 worth of medication he cadged from drug companies for $600 out of his pocket to rid the town’s youngsters of debilitating parasites.
Dr. Petit works with a Miskito nurse who runs their rudimentary clinic in his absence. He also uses hyperbaric medicine to treat divers whose crippling injuries result from diving deeply using pressurized oxygen tanks and rising too quickly to the surface.
“You wouldn’t believe the indescribably poor facilities we found there,” Whiddon says of the town’s clinic. “You wouldn’t have your dog treated there if you loved your dog.”
Last year Dr. Petit ratcheted up his commitment to Puerto Lempira, dreaming of building a permanent clinic there.
He decided to use his money to buy land to build a clinic, but got stonewalled by a stubborn local bureaucracy.
Then Andres Leone, a like-minded younger doctor who was part of the mission trip, stepped in with handy language and cultural skills. Leone who had attended medical school in Ecuador, is a Lutheran seminarian, and is completing a geriatric hospitalist fellowship at Palmetto Healthcare.
“We were in Puerto Lempira for two weeks and visited the mayor several times to buy land,” Dr. Leone explains. “He said the price was $600,000, which was ridiculous. In the town I overheard some conversations, which led to us meeting the 77-year-old daughter of missionaries. She sold us some of her land and even donated money to help build the clinic, which will be dedicated in her name.”
Thinking big, Dr. Petit is adding an apartment complete with air conditioning and a modern bathroom to the clinic’s blueprint, to attract residents in a to-be-formed international medicine program. As an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of South Carolina’s (USC) School of Medicine, he intends to oversee those residents.
Just back from Puerto Lempira, Dr. Petit finalized the clinic’s design, lined up local workers to figure out how to make concrete building blocks with native materials, and met with Anglican bishop the Right Rev. Lloyd E. Allen, bolstering support for the new clinic and the possibility of HIV outreach. Side by side with Honduran and Cuban doctors, Dr. Petit treated hundreds of Puerto Lempira’s villagers every day.
Back in the Hospital
Dr. Petit always wanted to be a doctor. Although his father suggested he become a hospital orderly, Dr. Petit knew being a physician was his calling, graduating from the University of West Virginia School of Medicine (Morgantown) family medicine program in 1978.
He enjoys hospital medicine as a holistic approach to caring for patients, consistent with his work early in his career.
An earlier 10-year stint as a hospitalist at HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital, also at USC, involved teaching residents and students rotating through the hospital, as well as a consultative service for neurosurgical patients at Richland. At Wheeling Hospital early in his career he became comfortable as a generalist, covering intensive care, assisting in surgery, and delivering many babies.
Being a hospitalist keeps that spirit alive. “It gives me the gift of time to spend with patients,” he says. “I try not to tie frail elderly patients down with IVs, Foley catheters, EKG monitors, worries that eating a leafy green vegetable will react badly with their Coumadin [warfarin], and polypharmacy.”
He discusses advanced directives, palliative care, and how the elderly in fragile condition can maintain as much freedom as possible. The hospital medicine group’s accommodating scheduling allows time for his parish duties and medical mission trips.
The group’s medical director, Victor Hirth, MD, describes Dr. Petit as a borderline workaholic who’s always looking for ways to make things better for the practice and patients. “The patients absolutely love him because he takes time to sit and talk to them,” says Dr. Hirth.
Dr. Petit also embraces new technologies. “Our [electronic medical record] makes working with my outpatient colleagues smooth and straightforward.” He relies on a personal digital device assistant for updates on clinical guidelines and optimal drug doses for elderly patients. Integrating a healer’s touch with new technology he says: “While medicine is a science, it’s still an art, a ministry, and a gift.”
Back in South Carolina, Dr. Petit has picked up his hospitalist and pastoral responsibilities without missing a beat. He looks forward to building the palliative care consulting service and intends to launch a nonprofit corporation to receive donations to support the Puerto Lempira clinic’s construction.
He is planning more mission trips. He thrives on the work. Infused with boundless energy, he’s always looking for more to do.
“I love what I do,” he concludes. “If I felt much better they’d charge me an amusement tax.” TH
Marlene Piturro is a medical writer based in New York.