Prayer and Medicine: Confessions of an OB/GYN Physician

The hand stretched out towards me and I looked at it solemnly.

“Will you pray with us, Doctor,” her mother asked.

I was at a loss for words or an appropriate response.

Pray?

 The day prior I had received the lab test. Her baby was 99% certain to have the devastating diagnosis of Trisomy 18, or Edwards Syndrome. It is an unfortunate condition in which a child is severely mentally retarded and typically does not live beyond the first year of life.

I stared at the lab slip when the results arrived. I wanted to throw it away in the trash and forget it ever existed. They were the sweetest and kindest couple. So full of life and so ecstatic for this first pregnancy. Why did this have to happen to them? I tossed and turned the whole night in bed, knowing that I would have to break this news. This just wasn’t fair. These types of things made me question my faith.

 Why do bad things happen to good people?

 And now they wanted to pray with me. What was the point? A prayer wouldn’t fix this problem. A prayer wouldn’t make the baby have normal chromosomes. And what did it matter if I was part of this prayer? Why did they need me in the prayer?

I stared at her outstretched hand and extended my palm to grasp hers.

What the heck? Might as well…

 I grabbed her hand and finally looked deep into my patient’s eyes. She was still in shock from the diagnosis, but had a fire burning in her eyes as she processed it all. It was a long road ahead. I walked closer to her and placed my hand on her pregnant belly. The rest of the family did the same. Her mother recited a prayer. A prayer for hope. A prayer for love. A prayer for healing wounds. We all hugged and tears were shed.

I’m not a religious person. I’m not a very spiritual person either. I’m a doctor. Doctoring has sucked some of that spirituality out of me.

I walk the white halls of the hospital and bounce in and out of rooms. I sometimes bear bad news. I try not to get too close and feel too much, it would be too hard. I try to wipe away the sadness when I go home to my family and friends. If I don’t get too deep, it’s easier to stay afloat.

But see, that can be unsatisfying as well. Staying so shallow in the relationship with my patients so that some of the connection is lacking. The whole reason and purpose that I entered medicine in the first place – the physician and patient relationship – is muted due to my need to protect myself from getting too close.

The other day, I watched our chaplain from the nursing station move in and out of the rooms on our floor. The chaplains are the unsung heroes of our hospital. They bear the brunt of the spiritual mess our patients must navigate.

What is the meaning of life?

Why did this happen to me?

How am I going to survive like this?

How do I go in peace?

What will happen to my family?

 As physicians, we are there to explain the science behind the diagnosis or treatment. We dissect the data and offer up the choices. As chaplains, they are there to help explain or process the humanity and spirituality behind it. Acceptance. Hope. Transition.

But, is keeping our distance the right approach?

I recognize that prayer may not always be appropriate, solicited or well received. I remember a physician I worked with in my training that we called the “Prayin’ Gynecologist” because he prayed with all the patients before they were rolled back to surgery. A few of the patients complained afterwards, using descriptions such as “weird”, “uncomfortable” and “creepy”.

Okay, I get it. If they aren’t asking for it, we probably shouldn’t force it upon them. That’s fair.

But what about the newly diagnosed cancer patient, the CHF patient that is circling the drain or the scared patient readying for a major surgery that wants to ask us to pray? Should it be okay for them to ask us physicians to pray with them? Should we let them know that door is open if they want to come in?

Some studies have shown how powerful prayer can be:

http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/can-prayer-heal

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2802370/

And the media has highlighted how much patients are seeking prayer in their medical experience:

http://www.nbcnews.com/watch/nightly-news/does-the-power-of-prayer-have-a-place-in-medicine–376110659839

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-195741/Why-praying-good-medicine.html

Back to the exam room, where I sat hand in hand with my patient and her family, one had on her belly. A soft prayer for healing, resilience and survival. Chills through my spine.

And I can’t explain it.

A connection.

A connection so deep and thick that you could almost see it.

I couldn’t fix her baby’s problem. I couldn’t make her baby better. But, I could pray with her.

And to be completely honest…it felt good. Religion aside. Dogma aside. It felt good to hold her hand and close my eyes and feel a connection.

For me, prayer in medicine is about experience – the patient experience, the provider experience. If prayer will enhance my patient’s experience, then I am willing to pray with them. The door is always open.

So my advice to my colleagues is this: if a patient or patient’s family wants to pray with you, then pray. You don’t have to solicit them. You don’t have to throw it out there. But, if they make the initiative and ask, then it is worthwhile to share a praying moment with them. They will love you even more for it and you might feel good about it.

Spend some time with your chaplain. Get to know him or her. Learn their style. Take a peek at what they experience. It is truly eye opening. And remember, the chaplains are a piece of the entire patient experience. They learn and observe things about our patients that we may never catch onto. We should be more connected and appreciate their value in the vast components of what we call comprehensive medical care.

Disclaimer: All medical stories are fictionalized.

Photo credit: By JFXie (Flickr: O Praise Him) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Prayer and Medicine: Confessions of an OB/GYN Physician

  1. As someone who has served in a number of capacities as a Chaplain over the years, I can appreciate the professionalism and sensitivity you write with here. It’s good to hear the questions and to see an acknowledgement of the role of Chaplains (when they are not acting as missionaries or preachers, which some unfortunately do).

    If it’s helpful, what I may point out is that there are options to praying and to prayer. What people mean by “prayer” varies, depending on their religious beliefs, of course. In my experience, “pray with me” often means “BE with me (in this very difficult time).” And one of the best ways I have found in these moments is to be silent with someone as THEY pray in whatever way they choose (well-trained professional Chaplains will understand this). This allows people to feel they have someone standing with them who respects their tradition without imposing any other beliefs (this gets touchy when someone prays “God heal me” or such, which is understandable but may signal denial in the face of reason and the inevitable).
    As it seems clear that you know, theologizing is not your role as a Doctor, and frankly, not what is called for even with a Chaplain present. Because it isn’t about Theology or even Religion. It’s about being present with someone who is suffering. It sounds like you practice this quite well in your own role.
    Thank you for your honesty and I wish you well in your valuable work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughts and insight. We never really had these discussions in our medical school and residency training, so I have been journeying on my own. You are spot on in your interpretation. I hope you continue to share this important insight and thank you for the work you do!

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  2. You’re welcome. I wish more people would think long and hard over these important issues that matter to many. Education by experience seems a good first (last and perpetual) step! Take care.

    Like

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