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.