Spot the ghost: Idealistic doctor from Catholic college seeks to build hospital near Ave Maria

If you have followed GetReligion for a decade or so, you know that one of our goals is to spot "religion ghosts" in mainstream news coverage.

What's a "ghost"? Click here for our opening post long ago, which explains the concept. The short version: We say a story is "haunted" when there is a religious fact or subject missing, creating a religion-shaped hole that makes it hard for readers to understand what is going on.

I received a note the other day, from a longtime reader, that pointed me to a perfect example of this concept. In this case, we are talking about a solid, timely New York Times story about an effort to build a new hospital in a rural corner of Florida that certainly appears to need one. Here's the double-decker headline on this long feature:

A Rural Town Banded Together to Open a Hospital. Its Foe? A Larger Hospital.
Even when a town wants to open a new hospital to make up for a lack of health care, the challenges can be enormous.

Here is the overture. Can you spot the ghost?

IMMOKALEE, Fla. -- Not long after Beau Braden moved to southwest Florida to open a medical clinic, injured strangers started showing up at his house. A boy who had split open his head at the pool. People with gashes and broken bones. There was nowhere else to go after hours, they told him, so Dr. Braden stitched them up on his dining room table.
They were 40 miles inland from the coral-white condos and beach villas of Naples, but Dr. Braden said that this rural stretch of Collier County, with tomato farms and fast-growing exurbs, had fewer hospital beds per person than Afghanistan.
So when he proposed starting a 25-bed rural hospital to serve the 50,000 people who live in the farming town of Immokalee and the nearby planned community of Ave Maria, people rallied to the idea. They envisioned a place where mothers could give birth and sick children could get 24-hour help -- their own novel solution to an exodus of hospital care from rural America.

Wait a minute. Is that THE controversial Ave Maria community that has been at the center of so much news coverage through the years? 

Are we talking about the "Catholic's paradise" founded a decade ago by former Domino's Pizza CEO Tom Monaghan, the planned college town that critics have accused of being a semi-theocracy? The town in which efforts to support Catholic values have -- according to critics -- led to a shocking lack of pornography and birth control?

Yes, we are talking about that Ave Maria.

So who is opposing this hospital and why? Here is the key Times paragraph:

... This summer, a larger hospital in Naples derailed those plans by asking the state to deny the proposal, saying that the small, rural hospital would siphon away patients and revenue. The move has upended people’s hopes around Immokalee and delayed any plans to start building the hospital for months. Maybe for good.

Ah, it's just a matter of money and fears of overloading the marketplace. That's an angle the Times team can work with and, frankly, the story does a great job of covering that story at the ground level, especially in showing the practical effects (some are horrible) of this area's lack of hospital beds.

But what about that doctor? Were there any other factors at work, when he started the Braden Clinic?

Well, it is interesting that the clinic's staff photo (the first image with this post) includes a glimpse of the famous chapel at Ave Maria University, in the center of that planned community. Then there is this passage in the Times feature:

Dr. Braden, 40, said he realized this soon after he and his wife moved in 2014 to Ave Maria, where they are raising five children. He specializes in emergency medicine and frequently flies himself from Immokalee’s tiny airfield to pull overnight shifts at nearby hospitals.
When he started pulling together the hospital application to the state, letters of support flowed in from the fire department, county commissioners, local businesses, developers and nonprofit health providers. The hospital would be built on the edge of Ave Maria, about seven miles south of Immokalee, on land now owned by a development company that supported the proposal. But the hospital still exists only in blueprints and paperwork.
After years of work and spending about $400,000 from a family trust on lawyers, consultants and state filing fees, Dr. Braden submitted a 2,000-page application to Florida’s health care regulators this spring, seeking a critical state approval called a certificate of need.

So we have a young doctor -- with five kids -- who is making a high-stakes, risky effort to start a small hospital that will provide care for an area with lots of low-income people and a controversial Catholic community.

What do we know about this man's background? Might there be a hint there about his motives? Well, a quick glance at his online biography shows that he is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in California -- a small, very doctrinally conservative Catholic liberal arts college in California.

So we have a rather young, clearly idealistic Catholic doctor who moves, with his semi-large family, to the Ave Maria area to start a clinic to serve the poor and others near a controversial Catholic town.

Might religion have something to do with this story?

I'll go further: Is there any chance that the connection to Ave Maria might be one reason that some folks in the secular medical powers that be in upscale Florida oppose this hospital? After all, how does Braden's faith affect his clinic? What services does he provide and which ones does he avoid?

Just asking.

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