In the News

The following story is printed with permission from The Orlando Sentinel. It was originally published on Dec. 28, 2002.

Faith in Practice

Power of healing goes hand in hand with power of faith: Florida doctor uses her God-given tools to help others

By Darryl E. Owens | The Orlando Sentinel

No sooner had Quillian Carver taken his seat in the pew than the dizziness roared back. He’d felt sick when he woke up that morning, but he knew he’d feel worse if he skipped church.

So Carver slipped on his brown-checked suit, combed over his silver-stained hair and drove his wife, Teresa, and his mother-in-law to Celebration of Praise Church of God in Clermont, Fla.

His legs nearly gave way when he stepped from his car. He sat on the church stoop, gathered his bearings and wobbled inside.

In the pew, Teresa turned to ask how he was.

Carver crumpled, sending his 180-pound frame into the pew with a thud before her words ever saw light.

Teresa pleaded for help.

From the pastor. From the flock. From God.

Prayers went up. A nurse knelt down. No pulse.

Suddenly a shout drifted down from the rafters: Dr. Woodard is still here!

Moments later, a diminutive woman, thin as a Communion wafer, 5 feet tall in flats, parted the sea of worried parishioners washing into the aisle where Carver lay.

Kneeling, she took up his wrist in her hands. His skin felt cold. She blew small puffs into his mouth and laid her hands on him, pumping her palms, trying to force life back into his limp body, inaudible words on her lips.

After a time, he opened his eyes.

And Vivian Woodard opened her mouth.

“She said, ‘Praise the Lord,’ Teresa recalls. “She had the biggest grin.”

Traditionally, doctors have treated faith and medicine as opposing spheres, not symbiotic points along one continuum. Woodard isn’t one of those doctors.

Teresa Carver believes that when Woodard grinned after completing her part in Carver’s near-Lazarus story, she was merely giddy with joy. Joy that she was in her element, practicing the two things she most loves: praising the Lord and healing others.

Her medical license titles her an “internist,” but her concern for the sick often goes to something deeper than any X-ray can reveal.

Each weekday, she tends the sick and afflicted who come to Emmanuel Christian Health Center, giving physicals, prescribing the right drug. Sometimes God leads her to pray with the sick.

She provides free flu shots for seniors and gives complimentary school physicals to low-income kids.

And she makes house calls.

Her patients are black, white, and Hispanic. Some are believers; some believe only in the power of pills. But race and faith don’t matter. Woodard will prescribe a cure for the body and suggest the cure for the soul.

“A lot of people just want their prescription,” she says. “They don’t want the real medicine.”

Her approach is to first show people Christian love, not smack them with the King James.

She moves about Central Florida paying visits to shut-ins, praying with grieving spouses, hatching ways for the uninsured to pay for desperately needed medications. Her God-given tools — a quiet voice, the compassion of a saint, an open line to the Lord, and a wide smile that warms up any chilly examination room — don’t fit in the medical bag she’s carried since she graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1982.

As strongly as Woodard believes in the healing power of prayer, she knows no one lives forever — something she learned after a 28-year-old patient in the Watts area of Los Angeles died of heart failure even after Woodard fasted and prayed.

“To me, her living was the most important thing that could happen to her,” she says. “From God’s point of view, life is a vapor, a short part of the eternal continuum, so he’s not as wrapped up in keeping us down here walking around forever as he is in keeping us with him in heaven forever. Sometimes, when we pray for people, we lose sight of that.”

She has no patience with Sunday Christians. Her philosophy is that believers shouldn’t check their faith at the office door.

For doctors, it isn’t always easy, she says, pointing to the case of Dr. David Hager, a Kentucky obstetrics-gynecologist being considered for a slot and possibly chairmanship of the Food and Drug Administration’s Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee.

Hager has come under fire from women’s groups for his faith-based medicine. In his private practice, he reportedly refuses contraceptives for unmarried women.

“I say bravo for him,” Woodard says about the backlash. “Just because people take exception with what you do, or persecute you for it, doesn’t make it wrong.”

One patient was so put off by Woodard’s offer to pray with him that he harrumphed straight out her office.

Eyes widening like a child engaged in mischief, Woodard says, “I prayed for him under my breath.”

At 45, Woodard is a respected physician with busy clinics in Clermont and Lady Lake in Lake County, and a third office, recently opened in Orlando’s Pine Hills community.

You’d expect her to be living large.

A Mediterranean compound in Isleworth?

Try a two-bedroom rental in Clermont.

“A room for me, one for my junk,” she says.

A closet choked with clothes bearing Armani and Gucci labels?

On a recent afternoon, she wears a double-breasted pinstriped suit, thinning at the collar, white hose, and navy leather flats so scuffed at the toes you’d think they belonged to a third-grade boy.

Old clothes neatly pressed.

“I don’t get any taller, don’t get any fatter, so there’s no point buying clothes,” she insists. “Fashion doesn’t mean anything to me, so I just wear the same clothes I wore 20 years ago.”

What does mean something to her is her causes. Her money goes elsewhere. To her church. To Christian missions in Colombia and Africa. To her nonprofit group, In His Care Medical Ministries, an organization she started in 1996 and through which she offers the homeless and indigent free flu shots, skin cancer screenings, and other free or low-cost medical services.

Clearly, Christian charity comes easily to her.

But you get the sense that there is something else.

That, in a way, she is ministering to the little girl who padded through a middle school auditorium — toes clenched like fists to keep the leather from slipping from the scrap of sole cushioning her feet — to collect yet another academic award as someone announced her name.

Vivian Jeanetta Woodard

Woodard grew up in Tildenville, Fla., then a rural community in Winter Garden, Fla., where blacks, like her mother, eked out meager livings as maids.

As a child, Woodard developed an appetite for learning, devouring library books. She even learned Spanish by watching a Spanish soap opera.

“I wanted to learn Spanish, but we did have some competition for the single television set we had,” Woodard said of battles mostly with her mother.

Woodard usually won.

The family attended church, but she confesses, “I slept through many of the services.”

She decided to become a scientist, but the child who had skipped ahead two grades found herself in remedial classes when she and other blacks were bused in the early `70s to Lakeview High School in Winter Garden. A white science teacher went to bat for her, getting her assigned to college prep classes, taking her to science fairs, preparing her for the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But a cousin who had grown up in poverty in Manatee County, Fla., was attending Harvard Medical School and persuaded Woodard to follow his path.

She attended Harvard University on scholarship, and later graduated from Harvard Medical School.

Soon after, while working at an inner city clinic in Watts, Woodard felt a tugging at her soul.

“God woos people,” she says. “I knew I needed more than the wealth and all the stuff that I’d been exposed to. I remembered enough from my early days sleeping in church to know that what I needed was God.”

Just as she began to pursue God, her family faced a crisis. Her 15-year-old brother Willie developed bone cancer in his leg. She’d seen enough cases to believe the brother, who was more like a son to her, faced a grim prognosis.

It usually unfolded like this: Doctors amputate the affected bone, administer chemotherapy, and patients survive perhaps a year.

The diagnosis crushed the doctor in Woodard. Quickly, the believer took over.

“I was consumed with praying for him because I knew that even with the best of care it was hopeless,” she says. “But I still felt that God could do something for him.”

Against such a dim backdrop, Willie lived. Somehow, despite being on Medicaid, he was assigned one of the world’s leading cancer surgeons at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Rather than amputate, the surgeon tried a new procedure: removing the tumor, grafting bone from a cadaver, and stabilizing the splice job with a metal rod.

Today, Willie is still walking, albeit with a limp.

“For me to know that God was a healer was a vital piece of information because doctors are thought of as healers in this society, and there are so many things that doctors cannot do,” she says.

“The Lord told me that I sent you to Harvard because I wanted you to go to man’s best so you could see the limitations of man’s best.”

Every Harvard teaching hospital she visited had a morgue, she says.

That “just let me know that man cannot do everything,” she says. “But the Scriptures tell me that what’s impossible with man is possible with God.”

Thirteen years ago, Woodard opened her first clinic, tucked away in a far corner of the Winn-Dixie Plaza in Clermont. She chose to name her practice for a name given the Messiah. Emmanuel means “God with us.”

There are signs of his presence everywhere: a book shelf stocked with missionary magazines, Bible storybooks and an edition of The Faith of Billy Graham; postings of scriptures printed in black ink.

Then there’s Woodard herself.

On a recent Friday, she walks into an examination room. She’s wearing those familiar scuffed blue shoes and toting a clipboard.

Jennie Maldonado is perched on the examination table, shifting her white cane. Woodard examines the chart. Maldonado’s blood pressure is dangerously low.

“Are you dizzy when you stand up?” Woodard asks.

“Quite so.”

Woodard slides onto a wheeled stool and rolls in close to Maldonado. She speaks to her in a tone barely above a whisper, looking straight into Maldonado’s dark sunglasses. She probably spends 20 minutes with her. Woodard conducts all her business this way. The waiting room swells, but no one seems to mind.

Ruthenia Moses has been coming to Woodard for six years. “I just feel like I’m with someone who really cares about me and is not just treating me because I have good insurance.”

Believe — or not?

In a 1996 Time magazine poll of 1,004 people, 64 percent of those surveyed said doctors should join patients in prayer, if the patients request it. What’s more, 82 percent of those polled believed in the healing power of personal prayer.

Last year, a Duke University study examined the role of prayer in treatment. Out of 150 subjects, 30 people were prayed for. The rest were treated with therapeutic touch and other kinds of therapy. The results suggested that the prayed-for people did better.

“People bring to doctors the types of problems that they brought to Jesus when he walked on earth in flesh,” Woodard says. “So I think it (being a physician) is a great place to be positioned as a Christian to deal with people and their needs. I make the Gospel available to my patients, but my primary witness is the way I care for them and through praying for them.”

Despite the possible benefits of prayer, not everyone is shouting hosanna.

Critics such as Dr. Gary P. Posner, president of the Tampa Bay Skeptics and a contributing editor to The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, say that prayer has its place among believers, but they warn against reliance on prayer as a primary medical treatment.

Woodard agrees that “prayer is an additional benefit” that she can offer patients. God leads her to pray with her patients, she says. She does not pray with all of them. Prayer usually follows a patient’s remark that reveals a need for it. And she always asks: “May I pray with you?”

She did that nine years ago when a mammogram revealed that Joanne Matthews, now 75, had breast cancer.

“If she feels that you’re concerned, she takes your hand and says, `I would like to offer a little prayer on your behalf,’ “ Matthews says. “I do appreciate it.”

Andrew Quattrocchi came to Woodard after his heart surgery in 1993. They became well acquainted, as she treated him for a plague of illnesses. Then came the cancer. At 79, sick — and tired of being sick — Quattrocchi had had enough. He decided to go quietly. He refused chemotherapy and arranged for hospice care.

On a Sunday night in November, Woodard called his wife, Lucille, asking to pay a visit. Andrew had slipped into a coma, but she gave Woodard the directions to their home. A knock came at the door about 9 p.m.

Inside, Woodard, Lucille, and the hospice caregivers gathered around his bed and held hands as Woodard led them in prayer.

“I could tell from just talking to her that she just had a need for that support,” Woodard says. “I could be a shoulder for her and comfort her and let him here my voice one more time before he passed away.”

The next day the man Woodard affectionately called “Pop” died in his sleep.

Lucille had lost her husband. But Woodard’s house call and prayer helped her find peace.

“It was like a miracle her being there the night before he passed. She was a great comfort,” Lucille says. She pauses a moment, her voice breaking.

“She’s an angel.”


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