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Once an atheist, this ICU doctor now feels a divine call to 'help people feel more like humans and less like patients'

by | Jul. 28, 2021

Samuel M. Brown is no stranger to the critical care unit. For years he’d been the doctor: donning a white coat, giving instructions, and managing advanced technical equipment. But one day, his role changed. Sam found himself in a hospital room not as the doctor, but as a distressed husband, anxiously awaiting updates on his wife’s condition. And in the midst of that traumatic role reversal, he fell into a moral crisis.

When Sam’s wife, Kate Holbrook, was diagnosed with eye cancer in 2012, his mind filled with questions: How long will Kate be with me? What will happen if she dies? And as he began accompanying Kate to surgeries and appointments, he also came face-to-face with a stark realization that would lead to a major shift in his career—and in his life.

Prior to his wife’s diagnosis, Sam was an active member of the Church, but he largely kept his professional and spiritual worlds separated. He wrote books on religious topics, but they were meant for professors of history and religious studies. In fact, he remembers reading a review of one of his books in which someone assumed he wasn’t a member and said the book showed that “it really takes an outsider” to explain the workings of the Church. 

“I was almost leading a double life, not in a bad or nefarious sense, but just that there was one life that was the traditional life of a physician scientist, and there was one life that was concerned with the human and religious side,” Sam says.

But in the nearly 10 years since that family health crisis, Sam has found a passion for bringing those lives together and testifying that a thriving religious practice does not have to be at odds with the traditional scholarly world. That conviction was the inspiration behind his new book, Where the Soul Hungers: One Doctor’s Journey from Atheism to Faith.

“This book is much more personal,” says his wife, Kate, the managing historian of women’s history at the Church History Department. “One of the things Sam is really good at is opening our eyes to the beauty of familiar things. . . . All the way through [the book] that happens again and again.”

In some ways, Sam’s journey of faith is unique: He spent his early life as an atheist. Once he did come to believe in God, he found faith didn’t come as naturally to him as science. But one element of his journey is true for all of us—regardless of education level, occupation, or background, we all have a soul that hungers. We have a yearning for something divine. And Sam believes it is in embracing that yearning that we learn how to truly live.

Humanizing Critical Care

Perhaps nothing puts us in touch with our divine yearnings more than when a life we love is threatened. For Sam, such a moment came with Kate’s cancer diagnosis. What he observed during her treatment would rock him to the core and open his eyes to the reform measures he feels God has called him to lead. 

“I realized that the medical system was unintentionally cruel to people who are sick,” Sam says. “When an eye surgeon ignored my wife’s whimpers during an exam of an operative wound, I realized that I had also been so focused on the technical side of things in the intensive care unit that I had not heard patients when they whimpered.”

Much of the unintentional cruelty that arises in critical care units is a result of patients being dehumanized. Most health-care professionals are caring people who want to make the world a better place. But because their jobs require such complex analytical thinking under intense pressure, they can lose sight of their patients’ humanity. Instead, they may start to see patients as only room numbers or conditions to be treated. And when ICU patients are not treated as humans, the psychological effects can be devastating: some even experience levels of PTSD similar to those of combat veterans.

Sam realized it didn’t have to be this way. So, as his daughter Amelia describes, he set out to “help people feel more like humans and less like patients.”

Sam founded the Center for Humanizing Critical Care at Intermountain Healthcare. The center conducts research to find ways to optimize recovery and, as Sam puts it, to help people avoid being psychologically ravaged by the experiences of their life-threatening illness.” As part of their work, his team provides trainings to help staff think more clearly about humane treatment and actions in line with it, such as knocking before entering a patient’s room, asking them what they would like to be called, and talking to coma patients as if they were awake and listening.

While the center does not have a religious mandate, Sam believes his testimony gives him a stronger sense of direction. He even sees his work there as a form of worship—an idea he likely would have laughed at as a teenager.

Finding a Ministry in Science

Although baptized and raised as a Latter-day Saint in Utah, Sam was an atheist from an early age—and he was proud of it. He came from a broken family that struggled financially. Sam’s negative feelings about religion intensified when his father left them. He read stacks of anti-Church material and was confident he could talk circles around his religious-minded neighbors. He only continued to attend church because his mother insisted.

But as high school ended, Sam began to see that his angry, unruly teenage years, which included shoplifting and vandalism, had put him on a dangerous path. While he still didn’t believe in God, he turned to his bishop for guidance.

His efforts to change led to a life-altering moment two months after high school graduation. One Saturday night, Sam prayed to know the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, but he felt nothing. The following morning, he stood at the sacrament table about to bless the water. As he opened his mouth to speak, he had what he calls “his first clear encounter with God.” The spiritual impressions he experienced in that moment were so strong that atheism was no longer an option for him.1

Despite the wildness of his teenage years, Sam still had good grades and high test scores—high enough to attract the interest of Harvard University. He came home one night at 2:00 a.m. to see his mom sitting in his room with a huge grin on her face. A Harvard recruiter had called ahead to tell them that Sam had been accepted. The recruiter’s timely call opened Sam’s mind to the idea that God was showing him a path forward. So he took his budding faith and completed his freshman year at Harvard, then went on to serve a mission in southern Louisiana. Looking back, Sam can see how experiences he had on his mission in the early ’90s influence his day-to-day life as a physician.

“Ministering to people [on my mission] who were so different from me, whose struggles were so different from mine, whose worlds were so different from mine—that [taught] me to sit and listen and to watch carefully,” he says. “And honestly, those skills [have helped me] in the intensive care unit as I’m interacting with people because I can sit and listen and watch and reflect.”

Three years after his mission, Sam met Kate, and they were married while he was between college, where he graduated summa cum laude, and medical school at Harvard. Kate herself earned a PhD from Boston University, and now they live in Salt Lake City with their three teenage daughters: Amelia, Lucia, and Persephone. Sam is associate professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine and medical ethics and humanities at the University of Utah, based clinically at the shock trauma ICU at Intermountain Medical Center. That is quite a title, but, for Sam, ministering is at the core of it all.

“I think that sense of a call to be a doctor, specifically to be able to minister to people, is a foundation for what I hope is a tenderness that in some respects balances my otherwise cerebral approach to things. I feel tethered to the world of people through my work as a doctor in a way that I wouldn’t otherwise,” he says.

He doesn’t only feel tethered to people through doctoring—he also feels that the profession ties him to God.

“I really take to heart that observation . . . that there’s no difference, ultimately, between the temporal and the spiritual. For me, doing this research and doing this hard work at the Center is a form of worship; it is a spiritual practice for me,” he says. “I think that we should feel quite free to allow our earthly vocations to express our worship, our love for God, and the religiously inflected love we feel for other people.”

Sam’s oldest daughter, Amelia, is 18 years old and preparing to attend Brigham Young University in the fall. She says that watching her parents’ professional examples encourages her to pursue what she loves.

“I think my dad and mom are constantly trying to be a vessel of God’s light,” Amelia says. “What’s really important to them is loving others and growing in connection with others and with God. It’s never been about pleasing the meritocracy in their careers.” 

The work Sam does in the hospital and that Kate does in the Church History Department certainly contributes to living a full life. But they also know that a life of embracing divinity would be incomplete without a diverse body of believers to share it with.

Divinity in Diversity at Church

“I would just be hanging out with overeducated scientists and academics”—that’s how Sam would describe his social life without his membership in the Church. But with it, the diversity of his relationships is “hundreds of times broader.” And why does that matter? Because life is closer to heaven when we learn to recognize the divinity within all people.

Some critics of the Church are eager to claim that all members look, think, and act the same. But Sam calls this a false story, one that blinds people to the wealth of diversity available to Church members.

“Through church I have had so many close, committed relationships with people that look nothing like me. And some of that has been racial and ethnic distinction, and a lot of it has been difference in viewpoints and life experience, in severity of trauma, educational background, affluence,” he says. “The Church brings me into the dramatic world of other people in a way that wouldn’t happen if I were just busy curating my friendships with people who look like me.”

One such friendship is with Jeff and Caitlin Howell, who moved from San Francisco into Sam’s ward six years ago. The two families didn’t have children of similar ages, work in similar fields, or have any obvious shared interests to draw them to each other—except that they shared a ward. Jeff can still remember the day Sam approached him after sacrament meeting and invited them over for Indian food.

“Sam’s not looking at your appearance when he’s getting to know someone. He really does look at your heart and your soul,” Jeff says. Since that time, Jeff and Sam have served together in an elders quorum presidency and rotated with each other as Gospel Doctrine teachers, and Caitlin served as the Young Women’s president for Sam’s three daughters. Today they enjoy being each other’s ministering assignment.

“I have multiple pictures on my phone where we’ll be sitting in Sunday School and Sam just snags my son out of my hand and is just cuddling him in the back of the room,” Jeff says. “It’s just a precious moment to me. . . . I’ll be forever grateful for the opportunity I have to call them my friends.”

While Jeff says he could write a “100-page essay” on why the relationship between these two families has been a blessing, Sam knows that trying to see the divine in others may not always be a comfortable experience. 

“Somebody’s going to say something stupid and mean over the pulpit. Someone is going to make a decision about a calling or the execution of a calling that I find deeply offensive. I’m going to say something, by accident, while teaching Sunday School that wounds another person,” Sam says, later adding, “Community will be painful, [but] it will also be glorious.”

And why will it be glorious? Because, unlike other positive organizations one could join, the Church is a community based on shared devotion to God with the belief that we are called to help each other reach a divine potential.

“I think being a disciple of Jesus Christ means being called out of contentment, out of convenience,” Kate says. “The rewards of worshipping with people in person and ministering to people far outweigh the extra comfort you might experience by staying home.”

And those rewards are perhaps never more appreciated or needed than when tragedy strikes.

Transforming Trauma

Sam’s profession has put him in a special position to minister to those who have been through intensely traumatic experiences. At the hospital, he cares for his patients and invites them to call him Sam instead of Dr. Brown—but it is within his ward that he finds the opportunity to connect with people on a familial level. And those connections have, at times, made all the difference.

Kate received her eye cancer diagnosis just as they were moving into a new ward in Utah. The memory of new and old ward members reaching out to them during that time still brings Sam to tears.

“When we were in the throes of those first surgeries, all those years ago, someone showed up on our porch and took all of our laundry. That was it,” he says. “They didn’t say anything. They didn’t tell us, ‘It’s going to be okay’. . . I think in that moment they heard the Spirit say that the laundry needs to be done and love needs to be shared.”

Kate adds, “Not knowing the people that were serving us was a beautiful way to get to know them.”

Eye cancer itself was surely not a beautiful experience. And neither is the long list of traumatic events that people experience. But as real and painful as those things are, Sam believes that with the right ingredients, trauma, with all its ugliness, does not have to become a fixed feature in someone’s life—it can grow into something different. With a belief system capable of bearing it, a community of motivated people, and the power of God’s grace to spark the whole process, transformation is possible.

“We don’t want to say that some terrible thing, the loss of a child, for example, is a beautiful thing. It’s not. It’s terrible. But it’s not just terrible. It can also be sacred,” he says. “It’s not that the sacred counterbalances the terror; it’s not that the sacred is the payment you get in recompense for the terror; it’s that the sacred transforms the terror and gives it a life and network of lives in which that terror is no longer the only thing visible.”

A Divine Yearning

Sam’s recent book, Where the Soul Hungers, illustrates how embracing the divine has changed him. He shares intimate glimpses into his life, such as how he learned to find joy in babies, to see God in opera, and to be unafraid to cry in church. His book shows that life will not be free of trauma and grief, but with God one can recognize the moments heaven touches earth.

Sam’s daughter Lucia describes such a moment when, years ago, the family visited France and attended Sunday mass at Notre Dame: “I couldn’t really understand what was going on because it was in French, but apparently it was a really beautiful mass. Dad had his arm around me. He kissed my forehead, and he was crying a little bit—I think that’s my favorite memory of him.”

Perhaps Sam looks back at that memory as a time his soul hungered for heaven—a moment he felt the divine yearning that reminds us of all that is to come.

“Sometimes you get [that yearning] when the sun goes down and you see day turning to night. Sometimes you get it at the threshold of a new life when a baby is born,” he says. “It may come with terror when someone slips from life, but it’s this sense that there is more to us than mortality.”

Lead image courtesy of Samantha Kelly Photography. All other images courtesy of Sam Brown and Jeff Howell.

Though raised as a Latter-day Saint in Utah, Samuel M. Brown was an atheist from an early age and proud of it. Yet, by his own account, God became an undeniable presence in his life. Now a faithful Latter-day Saint, this practicing research physician narrates some of the waypoints on his journey into believing and belonging. Some are dramatic—his wife's cancer diagnosis or working in a hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic—while many are simple yet profound: being mistaken for a homeless person while a student at Harvard, growing to like little children and opera, and learning to bake cookies for others. With gentle, self-critical humor and a generous regard for those who have accompanied him on his way, Brown’s book is an offer to walk with you a while on your own journey of faith. Available at Deseret Book and deseretbook.com.


Notes

1. To read more of the details of Sam’s conversion experience, see Samuel M. Brown, First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of The Temple (Provo, Utah: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2012).
Profile

Emily Abel

Emily first found her love for storytelling as an editorial intern at LDS Living. She recently returned as an editor and loves that her job is to highlight the meaningful in life. Emily is a graduate of Utah State University in English. Hiking trails, dance studios, and behind the cover of a good book are some of her favorite places to be.

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