In more than three decades as a cardiologist, Michael Attas, BA '69, learned that curing a disease is not necessarily the same thing as healing a person. Healing requires more than medicine.
"Curing is biological--the term for when a disease is healed. But healing is a bigger issue. It's spiritual and psychological," Attas says. "You can be cured of a disease and still need healing. On the other hand, some people are not cured of a disease but still find healing in their lives. Healing is when things that are broken apart come together. Sometimes that's biologically driven, but sometimes that’s spiritually driven."
The intersection of the spiritual and the biological, dual threads that have formed the tapestry of Attas' professional life, comes naturally to a man who has consistently found ways to tie together seemingly disparate passions. At Baylor, those threads formed his vision to educate students in healthcare and the medical arts as a "whole person" and became the trailblazing Baylor Medical Humanities program.
"I really had a vision that ethics and spiritual formation had a place in Baylor's pre-med curriculum," Attas remembers. "As humans, we can have a tendency to compartmentalize our faith life and our academic life and our social life. But the real world is not compartmentalized. It's multidisciplinary. Everything we do--what we see, experience, read and think--makes us who we are. The vision was to work with students to help form and shape them with a worldview that integrated faith in the practice of medicine."
The program was the first of its kind in the nation, taking students through an interdisciplinary course of study that combined the humanities, social sciences and the arts. Students studied ethics, literature, philosophy, history and more along with Baylor’s outstanding training in the sciences. Other universities have introduced similar concepts after observing Baylor's success with the program, but Baylor's program remains one of only a few in the nation.
Establishing a program like Medical Humanities would have seemed far-fetched to Attas during his days on campus. He came to Baylor on an athletic scholarship, and was a linebacker on the football team from 1965 to 1967. A self-described "ordinary jock" coming into Baylor, he was inspired by the personal interaction with faculty, which stimulated and expanded his thinking. He majored in psychology and added the pre-med track his sophomore year, eventually leaving football his senior year to focus on his studies.
Leaving behind his athletic scholarship, Attas was offered a helping hand by legendary physics professor Bob Packard, who offered him a paid position teaching physics labs and wrote a letter of recommendation that Attas credits with helping him get into medical school.
"I couldn't have done it without him and other professors who mentored me," Attas says. "I've always been attracted to people who see the world in a big view outside of their particular bound, and I was exposed to so many professors like that at Baylor, people that integrated different fields of study into a composite picture. They all influenced the kind of person I became."
Before retiring from full-time cardiology this summer, Attas spent 30 years treating the hearts of Central Texans, including many of the Baylor professors and administrators who influenced him as a student. In addition to serving more than 20 years as chief cardiologist at Baylor Scott & White Hillcrest Medical Center, he found time to teach classes at Baylor, graduate from seminary and serve as an Episcopal priest.
Retiring from his roles as a cardiologist and professor means Attas spends more time with his wife Gail, who he met at Baylor. They split their time between Waco and Colorado, where Attas is still finding ways to integrate his passions.
Several months of the year he can be found fly fishing along the Fryingpan River in Colorado, one of the top fly-fishing rivers in the world. The quiet, deliberate nature of fly-fishing gives him plenty of time to ponder how a hobby can relate to his faith. In 2012, he co-authored Fly-Fishing, The Sacred Art: Casting a Fly as a Spiritual Practice with Jewish Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer, an undertaking that tied together yet more threads in the tapestry that is Attas' life.
"We sometimes think our lives are defined by our jobs," Attas says. "And our vocation is a huge part of our identity. Medicine was a calling for me, no question about it. But, for me, it was never about compartmentalizing different areas of my life. I can't seem to keep myself from trying different things and integrating them into my life patterns. This award is a reflection not so much of me, but of a program that Baylor supported and that other faculty and administrators helped make happen."