Friday, June 25, 2010

Can faith make you well?

I read an amusing anecdote today about the famed economist E.F. Schumacher (author of “Small is Beautiful”), who in the ‘70s was in St. Petersburg, Russia, for a conference when he became lost despite painstakingly following a map of the city. What he saw on paper didn’t fit what was right before his eyes—several huge Russian Orthodox churches, unmistakable with their golden onion domes. They weren’t on the map, yet he was certain he knew which street he was on.

“Ah,” said an Intourist guide, trying to be helpful. “That’s simple. We don’t show churches on our maps.”

The atheistic Soviet government was transparently stupid that way: Denying the existence of what everyone knew to be real. If you don’t actually direct people to what were once places of Christian worship, perhaps they’ll stop noticing them.

I sometimes wonder if our healthcare system is any less willfully blind to the reality of God. A vast majority of Americans tell pollsters that they believe in a higher power, yet when we need medical care of any description, most healthcare facilities are found to be relentlessly secular. Doctors, nurses and other health workers seldom make reference to the deity. It’s as if we’re all in St. Petersburg, staring at those onion domes that don’t officially exist.

My complaint is specific to my journey through cancer care in Corvallis and Portland. I don’t necessarily expect my GP to bow his head in prayer before checking my throat for green phlegm. Nor do I want or need a radiology tech to offer contemporary Christian music among listening choices while I’m ensconced inside an MRI gantry. There is a time and place for expressions of religious faith, and I’m fine with routine medical care having a low quotient of religiosity.

For those of us needing oncology services or care for other forms of serious disease, I’m less agnostic. During my four years in cancerland, I can’t recall a single occasion when anyone said anything to me that could be construed as overtly religious. I’ve been asked no questions about my faith, received no offers of spiritual counseling, nor heard any passing comments that would reveal that a doctor or nurse had any religious beliefs whatsoever. It’s as if everyone is being censored by the Kremlin, and would be consigned to a gulag if the name of God were to pass their lips.

When I asked my oncologist in Portland last winter whether he thought prayer might have had something to do with a metastasis that mysteriously disappeared in my left leg, he smiled bleakly and raised his eyebrows. No comment.

I know that some people have had very different experiences. One friend told me how he hated to move from the Bay Area because he’d no longer be under the care of a cardiologist who regularly prayed with him during his appointments. I also happen to know that two oncologists I’ve seen in Corvallis attend churches locally. I’ve heard that both are fine Christian men. Yet when I made specific references to my faith with each of them, they shunted conversation back to strictly medical matters.

Perhaps this is a nonissue. Perhaps, as a pastor friend suggested, it doesn’t matter what his surgeon believes so long as he or she is a good technician. I take his point. I go to see a doctor primarily to receive treatment, not to praise and worship God. There is no insurance billing code for prayer and absolutions, so I shouldn’t expect them. Wanting to converse meaningfully with your doctor about matters of faith is as absurd as going to your priest or pastor to have your appendix removed. This is one tree I shouldn’t bother barking up, I’m told.

Yet I remain dissatisfied with this abdication to medical rationalism for two reasons. The first, as I noted above, is that we Americans are a spiritual people. Among Western nations, the U.S. is one of the most devout. Religion is important to most of us, and for some, it permeates our lives. When we or people we know get sick, we pray. We’re not so dualistic in our thinking about the universe that we fail to see how body and spirit are interrelated. Bringing a little religion into medical practice might actually improve the abysmal opinion that most of us have of our healthcare system. It seems to be something that many people would appreciate.

The other reason is that bringing faith and prayer into the exam room would probably improve medical outcomes. It’s been scientifically proven that there is healing power in religious faith. I’m not the only one who believes we live in a universe that’s ruled by a benevolent, omnipotent God, who cares about all creation, answers prayers, performs miracles and offers unlimited grace to the faithful. In the world I inhabit, every life event has purpose and meaning, including a negative development like cancer. I’ve seen people of faith transform the worst situations into positive experiences. I’ve learned life lessons from these friends.

Among a group of medical researchers who have studied the interplay between religious faith and health is Dr. Harold Koenig, who directs the Center of Religion and Health at Duke University. Koenig has written and spoken widely on his scientific research, which has been published in professional journals. Koenig has found that, in general terms, religious people live longer, healthier lives and use fewer expensive hospital services. In his book, “The Healing Power of Faith,” he even wrote a chapter in which he posited that people of faith (both Jewish and Christian) may have stronger immune systems. That topic certainly grabbed my attention.

Koenig doesn’t set out to prove that there is a God, only that faith in a higher power can be an important key to people’s health. The exact biological pathways that link religious involvement, a strong immune system and improved health have not been pinned down, but there are definite linkages. When it comes to prayer, I’ve concluded that the knowledge that I’m being prayed for is at least as important as the prayer themselves. I draw comfort and strength from knowing that not only is God in this with me but that other people, and specifically a community of believers, are as well. I believe I experience less stress than many cancer patients because of the inner peace I’ve found in my faith in God, and in the faith that others have expressed to me. These spiritual transactions have the happy side-effect of boosting my immune system, which as I wrote in my previous post is especially important in patients with melanoma.

The research done by Koenig and others in the behavioral sciences is rational, mainstream medicine, but unfortunately doesn’t appear to have dented routine oncologic care, at least in my neck of the woods. My faith was strong before I was diagnosed with cancer, which saved me from needing to seek out whatever meager resources there are for people who specifically request spiritual counsel or direction. I make my argument primarily for the benefit of others. There’s no way doctors should prescribe belief in God or church attendance as a road to health, but they can quantifiably help their patients by guiding a conversation into religious matters or inviting patient-centered prayer. This won’t happen, however, until medical professionals acknowledge what most patients already know or at least sense: we are innately spiritual beings. We cannot be wholly well physically without also being well spiritually.

Failing to appreciate the fact that patients have religious impulses and that they deserve attention is like the Russians pretending their magnificent churches didn’t exist. If the pursuit of health is the guiding principle of medicine, then the spiritual dimension of our mortal being shouldn’t be so conspicuously ignored.


nancy said...

Peter, keep the faith. I continue to pray for your health, and marvel at your faith, your words and your wisdom.

Anonymous said...

Hi Peter,
Your thoughts about the medical community are so pertinent. And maybe even more so here in Latvia. No one here wants to talk about faith. So many of the older generation have been influenced by the Soviet days.

But my experience in the US was a bit different because I had Jess Hickerson as my surgeon and we did get to talk about faith and prayer. Maybe just the fact that I know him from Northwest Hills made a difference but I think others have said the same about him. He certainly is well-respected not only for his skill in surgery but also for his character and kindness in dealing with patients and staff at the hospital.

I have been passing along your blog site for others to read, too.
Thanks for being so “thoughtful” about these kinds of things.
With love, prayer and much faith,

Anonymous said...

I hadn’t thought of this aspect of medical care until reading this entry. The only doctor who I really trusted (and listened to) had questioned me early in our relationship about my spirituality. He continued to inquire about this aspect of my health and stressed the importance of my mind in all aspects of my health. He retired and left me doctors that only write prescriptions.


Rick, AVFC California Supporters said...

Peter - your post accurately describes so much of our health system here in America. I am going to be starting a seminary degree in Sept as part of a call to spiritual care in a hospice/palliativ4e care setting. Spirituality definitely comes up more often at end-of-life for both strong in faith and those who have never stepped into a church in there life. The interesting thing with this is that the practice of hospice or ends-of-life care is rarely recognized as a central part of our health care system. As a volunteer at a pediatric end-of-life facility, in some cases very little or no health insurance reimbursement available. Studies continue to be done to support the recognition of end-of-lie care as critical as any form of acute care.

Thank you, as always, for sharing your thoughts.

Rick L.