I had recently returned from a medical conference, and the first patient I faced at 8:30 AM on a Monday morning was a woman who the physician in chief of the medical center wanted me to see because she was a problematic patient. She had been visiting the Emergency Department monthly for vague neurological complaints for more than half a year. Despite many negative brain scans and other tests, she was convinced she had multiple sclerosis, and she insisted on treatment with high dose intravenous steroids. When steroid treatment was denied her, she would write angry letters of complaint. I suspected I would be the next subject of a grievance because I had no intention of conceding to her request. As I was talking to her, I noticed a gold cross on her chest and I had an inspiration as to how to help her.
Coincidentally, the medical conference I had just attended was about healing and spirituality at the Kalsman Institute at Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Los Angeles. Of the more than 200 participants, most were women, and mainly hospice providers, therapists, and nurses. I enjoyed the workshops with Debbie Friedman focusing on music and healing, but I did not attend any of the sessions about using prayer in medical practice. I am traditionally trained in biochemistry and the scientific method, so going to workshops to explore the use of prayer in a medical setting did not appeal to me. However, at the conclusion of the conference, I couldn’t avoid listening to those caregivers who reported that their use of prayer had profound effect on their patients.
It should be no surprise that patients are interested in prayer. Many polls indicate that Americans are highly religious. Prayer can help people cope with illness, and many people believe that prayer contributes to physical healing. How many people do you know who rediscover their religious passion when he/she or a family member falls ill? In a 2008 PEW survey of more than 36,000 Americans, 92% reported a belief in God or a universal spirit. More than half of Americans who were polled pray at least daily. If you think about it, prayer has few adverse side effects, it is low cost, and it can be provided in multiple doses. I felt inspired to try a new therapy that I had never employed before.
I asked my patient what she did to cope with her illness, and specifically what she used for spiritual support. She confirmed she prayed on a regular basis. I explained to her that I heard her request for treatment with high dose steroids, but in good conscience I could not prescribe something with potentially dangerous side effects. I gingerly asked her if she would say a prayer with me. I held her hands, and while facing one another we each closed our eyes. I said a prayer for her well-being and recovery, and wished her strength to cope with her symptoms. At the conclusion of the prayer, I opened my eyes and detected her smile. I felt that I had made a breakthrough in helping her, and even more so, I had evolved as a physician and care provider. I continued to see her every one to two months; at the conclusion of each visit, I said a prayer for her, and she in turn recited a prayer for me. She never again asked me for steroids, and never again did she submit a letter of complaint.
Since that first day when I said a prayer for a patient and achieved a satisfactory outcome, I have been motivated to pray with other patients at the conclusion of an office visit (of course, with their permission). I have prayed with people from various religious backgrounds – Christians, Native Americans, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews. In only one instance did a patient decline a prayer because of a difference in religion.
It is sometimes difficult for physicians to convey how much we care for our patients, and I have found that holding patients’ hands and praying for their well-being is a socially accepted expression of care. At Samaritan House Medical Clinic, I frequently have to use an interpreter as an intermediary for prayer. We all hold hands together, and I sometimes have to remind my interpreter to interpret because she may remain silent as she gets caught up in the moment of prayer. Luckily, one of the interpreters is a volunteer chaplain, and she is a natural asset in this practice. Prayer transcends the realm of words, and I can easily tell when my prayer hits the mark whenever a patient becomes teary-eyed.
By observing positive outcomes with prayer, I have discovered that not everything can be explained by science alone. I have realized that praying for someone allows me to express gratitude, empathy, and hope in meaningful and efficient manner. Many of my patients have shared with me that they include me in their daily prayers, and I feel humbled to be a part of their thoughts. I have become respectful of the benefit of prayer as an addition to the standard practice of medicine.
Jerry Saliman, MD is a volunteer internist at Samaritan House Medical Clinic in San Mateo. He retired from Kaiser South San Francisco after working there more than 30 years. While at Kaiser SSF, Dr. Saliman was also Chief of Patient Education. He received the 2012 “Lifetime Achievement Award” given by the Kaiser SSF Medical Staff.
Editing acknowledgement: Ellen Saliman
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