Prayer as Medical Treatment

Her head had been in near constant pain for over 3 weeks. She had endured migraines for years but they had been rare and relatively brief. The pain was not making it difficult to sleep and function, work was out of the question.

This was her 4th visit in the office in a 2 week period. I had prescribed pain medications (which made her vomit), medicines to abort migraines (which had minimal benefit that did not endure) and had even stayed late one day to administer a steroid shot (which was a long shot at best). When I walked in the room the tears in her eyes and the strain on her face told the story. She was emotionally done, the end of the rope had been reached. She wanted help.

Unfortunately I did not have much to offer. All of the options for immediate relief had been exhausted. The next step would be to start daily medications to prevent headache, but these medications can take several weeks to be effective. I ordered a CT scan of her brain, which although medically needless was emotionally necessary to calm her fears and wrote the prescription for the daily medications.

Out of options, as I was bringing the visit to a close I asked, “Are you religious at all? Do you practice any faith?”

“Not really,” she said, “I went to Catholic school though. Why do you ask?”

“Nothing else has worked, so I was going to offer to say a prayer for you,” I replied.

“I’m not religious,” she said, “but I would welcome you saying a prayer right now. I will take whatever help I can get.”

I walked across the room and put one arm around her shoulders and said a simple prayer, “Dear God, Amber is hurting right now. She is frustrated and exhausted. Give her hope, give her peace, and giver her relief from pain. Amen.”

I had been taught In medical school I had been taught to never inject faith into an office visit and to never allow my faith to intrude into my care. Her acceptance of the hug and the prayer proved my former teachers wrong. Faith, expressed as love and concern for a person in need, always has a place.



An Atheist Asks for Prayer

“Doc, you know I’m an atheist, but I know you are a man of faith and I am going to ask you to pray for me.”

Atheists do not usually ask for prayer but this was a special circumstance. Being diagnosed with cancer causes people to reconsider beliefs they had previously rejected, to look for help in new places. Although my phone call to him delivering the biopsy results was not unexpected the diagnosis still hit him pretty hard. He had cancer and it was serious. He took only a moment to absorb the information before telling me he was not ready to die and he was afraid.

He had been battling a number of health issues for several months. First had come an unusual cancer of the skin and superficial tissue of his back, a cancer so rare that none of the doctors had seen it before. Shortly after the final surgery and radiation treatments for that cancer he developed an irregular heartbeat and was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation. Blood thinners became a part of his life. He had always been strong and healthy and now he was on chronic medications. He was no longer invincible.

While he dealt with the stress of these diseases he began to battle another problem. He developed severe stomach upset that made it difficult for him to eat. Heartburn, indigestion and nausea became his daily companions. He lost 50 pounds. He saw a specialist, but the specialist was concerned about doing an endoscopy and biopsy while he was on the blood thinners so definitive testing was delayed. After several weeks of waiting he called me and asked for a new GI doctor. A few weeks later the new GI doctor called me to let me know that he had done an endoscopy and discovered a cancer in the stomach. That news led to my call to the patient and to his unexpected prayer request.

A few weeks later he scheduled an appointment with me to go over his options and ask my opinion. We discussed what we knew (which was too little for me to give him a decent prognosis) and we discussed several possible outcomes. Although the cancer is serious and life threatening he is determined to survive. He again asked me to pray for him. I told him that I had been praying and would continue to do so.

As often happens during life and death conversations the discussion drifted to other areas of his life. He talked being estranged from his son and how difficult that had been for him. He shared about a recent school reunion that was bittersweet, as the joy of renewing old friendships was tempered by the gravity of his diagnosis. He told me about his journey away from faith many years ago, how travels to Europe and Africa had included visits to concentration camps and  areas of mass genocide. Faced with such evidence of evil he had rejected the idea of God's existence.  

Time and circumstances made deeper conversation inappropriate but it seemed to me that there was much he wanted to discuss, many more issues of the heart he desired to explore. It seemed that my years of caring for him had resulted in me being someone he felt he could trust. I wrote down my cell phone number and handed it to him.

“Anytime you want to talk, I’ll buy the food or the coffee. Not as your doctor, but as your friend.”

He promised he would take me up on the offer. I pray I will be an encouragement to him if and when he calls.

When he left I was again reminded of how important it is to not only care for my patients but to care about them. Sometimes the greatest therapeutic tool available is our ears. We just need to listen.

- Bart

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