Where faith, medicine overlap: Braitman, Burley share vocational work

Laurel Braitman and Dr. Ulysses W. Burley III give a dialogue-style Interfaith Lecture Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy. HG Biggs/Staff Photographer

Sara Toth

Laurel Braitman’s faith journey and professional journey are one and the same — and on a good day, “the overlap is 100%.”

“I wanted to be a writer, as soon as I knew that books were a thing you could do, and that real humans made them,” she said. “I didn’t know any writers. Even the dream of that was an act of faith. But our faith doesn’t come on its own or by itself. We need others to have faith.”

Braitman is now the founder of the organization Writing Medicine, director of Writing and Storytelling at the Stanford School of Medicine’s Medical Humanities and the Arts Program, and a published author. At Stanford, she works to help students, staff and physicians communicate more clearly — and more vulnerably — in a way that benefits both them and their patients. She spoke at 2 p.m. Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy, part of the Week Three Interfaith Lecture Series theme dedicated to “Health and Faith: Considering the Center of Wellbeing” in partnership with Interfaith America. 

Braitman was joined in conversation by Dr. Ulysses W. Burley III, founder of UBtheCURE, who was scheduled to speak the previous day with Eboo Patel; because of schedule changes, Patel spoke Wednesday and Burley presented with Braitman instead. Burley works at the intersection of faith, health and human rights, and he serves as project director for the HIV Vaccine Trials Network Faith Initiative.

To open their moderated Q-and-A on Tuesday, Vice President of Religion Melissa Spas asked them both to share their professional journeys and their faith journeys. Braitman and Burley both experienced the loss of loved ones in their youth — Braitman’s father to Osteosarcoma; Burley’s mother to breast cancer. If Braitman always knew she wanted to be a writer, Burley always knew he wanted to be a doctor. After his mother’s death, his dream shifted from being an orthopedic surgeon to being an oncologist.

Faith played an important role for both. The final gift Braitman’s father gave her was a pen he hoped she would use to sign her first book. The belief he had in her, she said, was a kind of a faith.

“It set me on a journey to not only become a writer, but to work in medicine, which I truly believe are at the frontlines of humanity,” she said.

Burley’s mother died when he was 10; he was angry at the God he’d grown up worshiping every week in church. 

“I rejected communication with God; instead of praying to God, I would pray to my mother,” he said. This, he said, continued for years, as he graduated high school, went on to study medicine at Baylor, Northwestern, Morehouse.

“Everything was tracking, I was hitting all of my benchmarks. Academically, I was on my way,” he said. 

But he realized, two years into medical school, he was exhausted. A fellowship abroad, which was supposed to entail him working with cancer patients, changed his life. He was able to step back, reflect.

“That year … reconciled my relationship with God,” he said.

Braitman considered the “practice of invulnerability,” as she phrased it. Her strategy for dealing with difficult feelings, for a long time, was outworking them.

“As long as I kept working faster and harder than any feeling of pain, loss, disappointment, shame, or regret, if I just worked hard enough and deep enough, and if I got enough awards, it would be OK,” she said.

It’s a very long way of saying, Braitman said, that she feels “very at home” in the medical field. She was already familiar with that world; both of her parents died of terminal cancer, and  were very candid in conversations about the question of medical aid in dying. 

She knew she wanted to explore the right-to-die concept in her writing, but through the lens of physicians who receive terminal diagnoses. The kindness and vulnerability she experienced at Stanford when she started asking those questions of physicians made her realize something: “There’s so much pain. There’s so much suffering here,” she said. “And there is no outlet for folks to be talking about these kinds of things.” 

Hence, Braitman’s work with thousands of medical professionals, helping them tell and process their own stories of trauma.

Burley took the Chautauqua audience back to the year in Argentina that he had said “reconciled (his) relationship with God.” He was supposed to work at a cancer foundation, but between language barriers, faulty communication methods, and things getting “lost in translation,” when he arrived, he realized the foundation didn’t actually have a position that would have fulfilled his academic needs for the year. He scrambled, found a clinical spot at Argentina’s leading HIV/AIDS foundation, and took it as an opportunity to learn and grow in the field.

Burley spent the remaining nine months of his fellowship rotating among four different area hospitals treating and caring for people living with HIV.

“It changed my entire outlook on healthcare” he said. “It was the first time that I was introduced to what we call the social determinants of health, which are those structural conditions in which people are born, learn, work, grow, worship, and include anything from anyone’s neighborhood and built environment, to their economic stability, to their level of education, to their social community, to their access to healthcare.”

The key difference between cancer and HIV, he said, is that when someone shares a cancer diagnosis, they’re met with empathy. 

When someone shares an HIV diagnosis, they tend to be met with judgment.

“Everybody who came into my care had a unique and complex social circumstance that undergirded their medical diagnosis of HIV,” he said. “They told me stories about abuse, and discrimination, and challenges with substance misuse, and government corruption. All of these determinants played a role in their ending up in my care. It was a challenging year for me.”

Even after leaving his care, in hospitals far from the standards he was used to in the United States, Burley knew his patients were re-entering a world filled with those structural conditions he’d listed. They’d just wind up back in the hospital.

“I went into that year wanting to cure cancer. I left that year wanting to cure poverty. … I left convicted,” Burley said. “What have been working all of these years toward, if I can’t actually make people well?”

Hence, Burley’s work in immunology and advocacy.

To close, Spas had one question each for Burley and Braitman. Burley had noted that faith is a social determinant of health, and that faith had helped him become a better doctor.

In Argentina, Burley developed a deep connection with a particular patient, a transgender woman who had a history of sex work.

“One of the things that she talked about with the greatest passion was her faith. She was Catholic, as more than 90% of people who live in Latin America are,” Burley said. “I could tell from the way she talked about God that she was a deeply spiritual person.”

But the woman couldn’t remember the last time she’d been inside of a church.

“She could no longer identify with a faith that didn’t identify with her as a person who was transgender, as a person who was living with HIV, as a person who sold her body as the only means to be able to support herself — which is what made her more vulnerable to acquiring HIV, because she was rejected by church and society,” he said. “I began to tap back into my own spirituality. … Praying to my mother wasn’t good enough anymore.”

Returning home, Burley started to examine the role faith was playing in the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which disproportionately affected Black people and the LGBTQ+ community — particularly in the Bible Belt. The region with the most houses of worship, Burley said, also has the greatest burden of poverty in the country.

Reconnecting with his faith led Burley to the Evangelical Lutheran Church America, which  had just released its first strategy on HIV/AIDS. His worlds were aligning, and as a representative  at an international AIDS conference, he met the Rev. Edwin Sanders. Sanders was the founder of the  Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville — the only church in the country with funding from the Centers for Disease Control to connect and train faith leaders combating the HIV epidemic. Sanders welcomed Burley into this work.

“Since then, I am more clear than I have ever been that faith is a social determinant of health, and particularly a social determinant of HIV and AIDS — for better or for worse,” he said. 

Data suggests that faith can be protective for people living with HIV and AIDS, as much as it can be stigmatizing and deleterious, Burley said — and he says that as someone “who trained under physicians who would reject faith at the bedside anytime someone professed  their beliefs.”

Burley didn’t think he could be whole in a space that penalized someone publicly expressing their faith; so he created one —  UBtheCURE.

Just as Burley created a space to be whole, Braitman is also embarking on a new endeavor in her journey. She’s a secular chaplain-in-training, and Spas asked her to speak to that work.

“I think storytelling is the oldest medical technology. … Every medical interaction is an opportunity for storytelling,” Braitman said.

Helping people who are engaged in those conversations every day, she argued, is a form of chaplaincy. Being a secular person in those spaces can actually be helpful. She often asks herself the secular version of “Where is God in this?”

“ ‘Why me?’ ‘Why us?’ That is the question that undergirds all of my work,” she said. “Do I have an answer? No. … (But) I think the answer is really just the chance to be here, the chance to experience all of it — that is the gift of life, and we must sign some sort of cosmic release form. With every good thing, there’s going to be a terrible thing, too. That is the price, and while I feel as if I have no answers, I want to be an open window to a place where people feel like they can at least feel less alone and grasp towards meaning.”


The author Sara Toth

Sara Toth is entering her fifth summer as editor of The Chautauquan Daily and works year-round in Chautauqua Institution’s Department of Education. Previously, she served four years as the Daily’s assistant and then managing editor. An alum of the Daily internship program, she is a native of Pittsburgh(ish), attended Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania, and worked for nearly four years as a reporter in the Baltimore Sun Media Group. She lives in Jamestown with her husband, a photographer, and her Lilac, a cat.