Spiritual Medicine

I saw the title of a recent blog and knew I immediately would read it. The title made a simple statement: “Doctors Fail to Address Patient’s Spiritual Needs.” I suspected that was the case, but it is not a conversation I ever had with any physicians. So I began to read with interest.

The story begins with a doctor describing a young woman in her 20s he is treating for cancer. She was not responding well to the treatments and he feared the worst for her future. He begins to narrate some details. He acknowledged that he noticed that she and her mother, who visited daily, wore tiny gold crosses. She also had a picture of Jesus at her bedside. Robert Klitzman, the doctor, set the story for its context. But the next few sentences made the article significant.

He said, “I wondered: Should I call a priest? Should I ask her if she wanted to see one? I wasn’t sure, and didn’t even know how to raise the topic.” This confession touched me. I have huge respect for physicians. My daughter is one. I know the incredible training they undergo. They are expected to manage important situations they find themselves asked to address. And I also know they have their own human limitations. They are not god.

In effect, this is what Klitzman is confessing. He claims to be a doctor, but not god. He continued to write in a touching fashion. “I was raised Jewish, and had no idea about when to call a priest, or what doing so might imply. I feared that if I raised the issue, she and her mother would feel that I was giving up on her. So for a few weeks, I did nothing. But every time I visited her, I felt bad.” Reading those words made him feel very human.

I found his next step a bit humorous. He decided to ask the resident with whom he was working. He tried to be nonchalant when he posed the question: “Do we ever call a priest?” It was even funnier to hear the resident’s response: “That is simply not something we ever did as physicians.” I can almost hear a resounding, “case closed,” sound in the background.

Klitzman continues by noting some studies that seemingly demonstrate that talking about religion or spirituality often aids the healing process. And particularly for end-of-life patients talking about this subject can be very important. The thing I appreciate about Klitzman is his honesty. He is using his experience to continue to learn and figure out how to be even more effective as a physician and human being.

He realizes that he does not have to be religious to talk about religion with a patient. That is a huge step. We all have limitations---limitations in the knowledge we have, the boundaries our beliefs put on us and, hence, limit us and clearly the limitations of our own experience. I certainly resonate with this. I know the limitations I have and how they affect my job.

I am as willing to talk with people about religion and spirituality as Klitzman is unwilling. However, I am under no illusion that merely talking about this kind of thing is going to heal someone from cancer or make a damaged heart healthy again. In fact, I may be particularly effective in end-of-life contexts. And we all know that at some point all humans are going to die. Sooner or later, we all have end-of-life issues.

As I thought about what Klitzman was sharing with me, I realized that I offer a kind of spiritual medicine. I don’t offer pills and give no shots. Most of what I offer feels indirect and certainly not flashy. But I think it can be healing. And healing is the key idea. I have thought quite a bit about healing. Healing always leads to some sense of wellness. Wellness is different than being physically ok. In fact I might not be physically ok, but I can be well. Finally, we can all be well even at the point of death. Personally, that is my goal: to be able to die well. Paradoxically, even though I probably will be sick, I can be well.

That is where spiritual medicine comes into the picture. It may not cure cancer, but spiritual medicine can cure a sick soul. And I have learned that many physically healthy people have sick souls. In my experience, spiritual medicine often takes the form of offering folks a sense of meaning in life. Sometimes it offers a deep sense of belonging. That does not imply an atheist cannot have meaning and a sense of belonging. But spirituality surely offers these.

Another significant aspect of spiritual medicine for me is the ego transcending nature of the medicine. By this I mean the awareness and comfort that I am not the center of the universe---even my little universe. In the best sense of the word, spiritual medicine puts me in my place. I come to have a solid, non-egoistic sense of identity. If this can be linked to some meaning and blessed with a sense of belonging, then I am going to be well in any context life may place me.

I would like to meet Dr. Klitzman. I would like to team up with him and help him address patient’s spiritual needs. We all have spiritual needs. I know there is spiritual medicine to offer.

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