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Notebook Religion

Trauma surgery and soul surgery

Dr. Tom Blee (Sharon Dierberger)

Religion

Trauma surgery and soul surgery

A Minnesota doctor’s nonprofit offers hope to former gang members and addicts

Dr. Tom Blee, wearing teal green scrubs, receives smiles from staff members as he walks the stark hallways of Regions, a major hospital in St. Paul.

The Minnesota trauma surgeon discovered that healing involves more than stitching up gunshot injuries or resecting a damaged colon. After professing faith in Christ in 2014, he began pointing patients, their families, and co-workers to the True Physician. He also co-founded LIFEteam, a ministry to bring lasting hope to the young gang members who often end up in his operating room with bullet or knife wounds.

The original purpose of LIFEteam—Leadership Impacting the Family Environment—was to help young men who wanted out of gangs. Today its clientele has grown to include anyone who wants to leave behind violence, addiction, or despair. Blee helped start the nonprofit along with a former Minneapolis gangbanger turned minister, John Turnipseed, and two others.

The group’s work covers an informal 50-mile area from Regions in St. Paul southeast to Red Wing, the town where Blee lives. It provides Christ-centered mentoring and connects individuals to resources like counseling, fathering classes, attorney referrals, and protective housing. Sometimes LIFEteam staff members supply the mentoring, counseling, or support meetings, and other times they are a bridge to other ministries or organizations. 

“Many of the young men we see have no father, no male role models,” explains Blee. “We try to build a team around them to start helping.”

When Blee identifies a patient he thinks is in a spiritually dark place, whether a gang member, addict, or other trauma patient, he tries to arrange a meeting away from the hospital. He focuses on building a relationship.

As he discerns struggles, Blee plugs the man into the right LIFEteam resources and continues meeting for accountability. LIFEteam’s main goal, he says, is “to establish hope.”

I was torn down to absolutely nothing and had to be rebuilt.

Blee, 50, did not always have hope. He grew up with an alcoholic mother and a workaholic father. Turned off by an early church experience he said left him feeling condemned, he buried himself in his education and became a successful surgeon. He was eventually named director of acute care surgery at Regions.

But his life was proverbially flatlining. His marriage was crumbling, and he felt overwhelmed by daily medical decisions. He was miserable and empty. 

“My sister told me what she was always telling me: You might want to get to know Jesus,” says Blee, with a laugh. He finally did just that, kneeling and asking Jesus to show Himself and help.

Handout

Jesse Shaw with his sons (Handout)

Suddenly, he no longer felt alone. He plunged into Bible reading, joined his sister at church, and prayed, “Use me, Lord,” before going into surgeries. He started praying with patients, their families, and trauma team members. He also sensed the Holy Spirit moving him to do more to help the gang members who kept arriving in the ER.

Blee is frank about his own struggles, including a failed marriage. He spent a night in jail in 2015 after a family altercation (he says he prefers not to discuss the details publicly for his sons’ sake). Authorities dismissed the charges, but the incident hurt his reputation and resulted in a temporary suspension from his hospital. 

“I was torn down to absolutely nothing and had to be rebuilt,” he says. Looking back, though, he thinks those experiences have helped him relate to men he’s trying to help. 

Some men find LIFEteam through the court system. The presiding judge in a local court treatment program often looks to the ministry for input or refers men. A local church pastor, Justin Boeding, also directs men—usually addicts—to the team. LIFEteam also occasionally connects troubled young women to ministries and support groups.

Sometimes Blee finds unexpected avenues of ministry. In 2016, after seeing more than 200 calls on his phone coming from the local jail, Blee drove there to find out who was trying to contact him. He learned the inmate dialing had actually been seeking a drug dealer to bail him out, but was off by one number. Blee stayed to talk and pray with the man, Jesse Shaw, a meth addict and dealer who’d recently accepted Christ but didn’t know what to do next. The two kept in touch, and Blee encouraged his tentative faith.

Months later, a woman who’d fallen asleep at the wheel and slammed into a school bus was helicoptered to Regions from a different part of Minnesota. Blee, filling in for another surgeon, labored with his team to repair the woman’s massive injuries, and she lived. That afternoon, Shaw called Blee from jail, sounding panicked. He was looking for his mom, who he’d heard crashed into a bus.

Incredulous, Blee told him: “I had her in surgery today. She’s alive and stable.”

“Only God could arrange that,” Shaw now says. “Out of all the trauma centers, out of all the surgeons in the state, my mom gets Tom.”

Soon after, Shaw accepted mentoring through LIFEteam, became drug-free, and started reading the Bible in earnest. He says Blee taught him to be a man, take responsibility for his actions, and move forward. Now, three years later, he is LIFEteam’s chief operating officer. He teaches other men and talks about Jesus with recovering addicts. 

Once lonely and suicidal, Shaw, 33, today calls himself “a blessed man.” 

Shaw also coordinates First Supper, a LIFEteam-sponsored weekly meal centered on a Bible message, currently attended by 10-20 men. During the coronavirus pandemic, the meetings are online. He meets individually with five men each week, building friendships and reading Scripture with them.

One of those men, Alex Adolph, 30, had hit bottom much like Shaw had—in jail, Oxycontin addiction, severed relationships with family. Blee visited him, got him into LIFEteam, and introduced him to Shaw. Shaw meets with him twice weekly, and they attended church together before the coronavirus shutdowns. Adolph is a year sober, says his family relationships have never been better, and hopes to attend school to become a peer support specialist to help others.

“The fellowship of men supporting and guiding each other is huge,” he says. “I’ve learned it’s OK to ask for help.”

Blee says so far LIFEteam has worked with hundreds of men. About 50 stayed with the ministry for three months or more, with some continuing as mentors. A new ministry chapter has started in Duluth, and trauma surgeons in other states have asked Blee how to replicate the LIFEteam model. 

Changes have taken place in Blee’s hospital, too: Staff began a Bible study, and now when someone dies in surgery, the entire trauma team stops for a moment of silence. 

Hospital halls are eerily quiet now, with no family members allowed under virus mandates. Blee is prepared to help if COVID-19 patients flood the ICU. Meanwhile, he’s still performing emergency surgeries: With or without a scalpel, Blee is ready to heal.