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Chaplain enjoying new parish

November 14, 2000

Heather Heilman

After finishing his doctorate, the Rev. Don Owens thought about applying to medical school. But prior commitments to his work as chaplain at the University of Oklahoma and to his family made the idea untenable. Owens, however, has found an alternative route to medical school. This fall, after 25 years at Oklahoma, he became the chaplain at Tulane's Health Sciences Center.

Tulane is the only medical school that I know of that has a full-time, dedicated chaplain, Owens said. This is my parish. His parishioners are the medical centers students, faculty and staff. An Episcopalian priest, he also ministers to patients at Tulane and Charity hospitals on request. He celebrates Mass once a week at the chapel in Tulane Hospital and is working on expanding that schedule.

Besides serving as chaplain, Owens also is an assistant professor and teaches ethics in the Foundations in Medicine program. Students come to him with loads of unanswered questions: What do you tell a patient who wants to terminate treatment? What rights do patients have? When is it OK to let a patient die? What's the role of the physician? How do we work with HMOs? What do you do when an attending physician seems incompetent?

Owens doesnt give them answers. There are no answers, he said. Our job is to assist them as they work through and think about where they are going to stand for awhile. I say for awhile, because that's going to change, too. Nothing is black and white, and re-evaluation is going to be constant. I tell them this will become second nature, and they'll do a good job of it. It doesn't matter if the students don't share his religious faith.

We're not teaching morality, we're teaching ethics, he said. There's a difference, I think. Ethics transcends religious differences. He enjoys working with students and plans to develop other courses in the future, perhaps on religion and spirituality in medicine. He has been impressed with the high caliber of scholars at Tulane. Many of these students have some rather extensive experience, he said. They're thinking about this stuff, and they care about the ethical issues that affect them.

The highly intellectual ambience is the thing that attracted Owens to Tulane and what makes his job more satisfying than that of a normal parish priest. I love the atmosphere, which is highly intellectual, highly motivated, very active, very forward-thinking. New things are always here, and new ideas are always cultivated and appreciated, he said. What I don't hear is, 'We never did it that way before.'

Another benefit of his job is that it is allowing him to get an informal medical education. In fact, he can often be found sitting in on anatomy lectures. It lets me know what students are doing, what they're thinking, Owen said of his class attendance. But I go just because I enjoy it.

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