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Family Feature Articles

Most recent posting below. See other articles in the column to the right.

Prayer as an Adjunct to Standard Medical Care

Gallup and other pollsters have noted that 95% of Americans believe in a "Supreme Being". But what this means and how this data is employed for a "better life" is another question. In North America today a better life too often becomes rooted in the "self"--"the self-made man or woman" is something very much admired and sought after. For many of us, the better life is measured by material gains, prestige and power. Sometimes our work can become the idol of worship. This remains true as long as the better life is maintained by relying upon one's own resources. There may not be a need for a higher Presence when all is going well. But the scenario comes crashing down when one must deal with a critical and unexpected loss---a loss of a family member, job, one's health, or loss of control over an unpleasant circumstance which has suddenly appeared, (e.g. crouched down in a foxhole with bullets flying overhead). Here we hear the words, "God help me! I can't handle this alone." Whatever the cause of the crash, the need for healing whether physical, emotional or spiritual soon becomes apparent.

In recent years there has been a recognition that prayer can play a significant role in healing, being used as an adjunct, and not an alternative, to standard medical practice. The patient needs a compassionate person and a caring community to avoid "feeling all alone." A gentle touch, an attentive ear, a prayer, all contribute favorably to the healing process.

There is an ever-increasing amount of literature to show how a support system of friends, clergy, and prayers can stimulate the immune system and thereby help with healing. The body's T cells, which enhance the immune system, have been shown to increase when a sense of hope and optimism is introduced within the patient. These T cells help by subduing infections, and protecting against various illnesses. Interleukin-6 is a molecule that can be responsible for causing inflammation in various organs in the body; it can be thought of as an adversary to the immune system. The substance is reduced when one experiences inner peace; it becomes elevated under stress. Research tells us that the mind and nervous system talk continuously with each other. Hormones and neurotransmitters are able to influence the immune system and products of the immune system can also influence the brain. Workers at the University of Rochester feel that the brain can be taught to control its immune system. For example allowing light to shine through a window in a hospital room has a favorable influence on healing. Other studies reveal that patients whose minds are upbeat and want to get well do better than those who are downcast and upset or have lost their will to live.

There are many studies now revealing the positive role of spirituality in helping the healing process. One such study encompassed 92,000 residents from a community in Maryland. People attending church at least once weekly had 50% less deaths from emphysema, 50% less deaths from coronary heart disease, 74% less deaths from cirrhosis, and 53% less suicides. Several psychiatrists reported in The New York Times that individuals with strong religious beliefs do better in therapy. Other investigators have shown that people with deep religious commitments showed significant gains in healing in 7 out of 8 studies in cancer, 4 out of 5 studies in hypertension and 4 out of 6 studies in cardiovascular disease.

The value of prayer as a complementary tool in healing is now finding its way into the secular press, and patients appear to be more open to this option today than in former times. Likewise the major advances in biotechnology, though necessary, have replaced in some instances the hands-on care of former years. This can create a barrier between the doctor and patient. There is a longing for a gentle touch, an attentive ear, and a closer relationship. With the advent of managed care, both patient and the physician find it increasingly difficult to establish any kind of lasting relationship due to tight scheduling of office visits and frequent switching of health care plans by various companies. The result is a loss of continuity in care for both the patient and the doctor.

Health care providers have been largely trained in the scientific method. It would seem appropriate that some attention be paid to the power of healing prayer. If prayer helps the healing process, and this can result in a shorter hospital stay and less complications, the doctor might be more open to calling a clergy person early on during the hospital stay. If the physician feels comfortable in praying for the patient, and with discernment feels the patient is open to prayer, there is no reason not to proceed. From my personal experience, the doctor will soon experience a new element of joy in the practice of medicine. A special kind of bonding with the patient occurs. This results in a closer and more caring relationship. Better patient compliance will follow. An offshoot of all of this is that the doctor may sense that not only does he or she have patient and friend but a prayer partner as well.


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