Physicians may refer to it as the “bio-psycho-social-spiritual model.” Patients might understand it better as treating “body, mind and spirit.” The religious faithful simply see it as “the power of prayer.” Whatever it is called, Don Sherwood feels it working for him. Sherwood served in the 82nd Airborne, weathered the deaths of his wife and brother five years ago and bought his first motorcycle two years ago at age 74. In January, he was diagnosed with acute leukemia.
Now, he spends some of his time tethered to medical equipment at Roswell Park Cancer Institute as chemotherapy drugs drip into his veins. And while he is doing that, he sometimes prays.
“I was pretty overwhelmed with anxiety, stress, worry,” Sherwood said about his diagnosis. “What am I going to do now? What if, what if, what if ... That burden, that stress, was worse than the disease itself.”
He did not have to face his illness alone. During many of his treatments, a Roswell Park chaplain stopped by.
Sherwood, a retired construction worker, said he had not been overwhelmingly spiritual in his life, but the chaplain's visits touched him.
“He always ended with a nice prayer,” Sherwood said. “He wasn't pushy or anything. I ended up turning things over to Jesus, and a lot of the pressure, tension, was kind of removed. I thought, 'I'll do what I can' and leave the rest to God.”
Off-loading worries may be one of the keys to the recognized success of spirituality in healing, easing distress and coping with terminal illness, experts in both faith and medicine agree.
Murray Levine, professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University at Buffalo, examined the connection in a paper that appeared in the Journal of Health Care Chaplaincy in 2008. Several studies indicate that prayer “helps to make more tolerable the stress associated with major life events,” such as illness and the loss of loved ones, he wrote in “Prayer as Coping: A Psychological Analysis.”
Levine compares a person's prayerful conversation with God to what a psychotherapy client may experience. Putting one's thoughts and fears into words helps clarify them, he writes, and brings emotional relief. One study indicated that people who perceive God as merciful may also feel forgiveness.
“Being forgiven relieves guilt and guilt-related stress,” Levine notes.
Those who engage in deep, contemplative prayer may also experience other physical benefits, Levine reports. In one study (Seeman, Dubin & Seeman, 2003), physiological benefits were found that are similar to those gained via meditation.
“These include effects on the autonomic, endocrine, immune, skeletal and smooth muscle systems,” Levine writes.
He concludes that modern research is supporting what “untold millions of people over the ages” have found about the power of prayer.
“Religiosity, faith, spirituality and the practice of private prayer are related to health and well-being,” he says.
Dr. F. Fero Sadeghian, an Iranian-born doctor who lives in East Aurora and is now retired from regular practice, talked about this aspect as “a dimension to [healing] that we in medicine have forgotten how to address.”
In his autobiography, “They Call Me Fero,” he describes a personal awakening to the importance of spirituality.
“At the beginning, I was like any other young physician, totally infatuated by what medicine had to say,” he said recently.
Gradually, he began tuning into his patients' belief systems – including the belief of doctor and patient in one another.
“Trust in each other played a major role in rapid healing and in achieving better outcomes,” he said.
The great divide
In Christian tradition, Native American culture and among many other faiths and indigenous groups, healing and spirituality often have gone hand in hand.
“In the Middle Ages, medicine was practiced in monasteries and convents; the monks and nuns studied herbs and other healing practices,” said Bob Fink, director of chaplains at the Center for Hospice & Palliative Care. “For a long time, a lot of medical training was through religious schools. Faith did not reject medicine.”
However, in the past 100 years or so, medicine separated from religion, he said. The reason was simple.
“When we are more involved in the physical world, that's what we look to for answers,” he explained.
But, Fink also has seen attitudes change in the two decades he has spent working in hospice care, which is designed to help people cope with end-of-life issues.
“We are on a journey with them, to help them along it,” Fink said. “As the journey progresses, the [patients] become more aware of the spiritual part of their lives.”
While the chaplains at Hospice don't replace clergy, he said, they are there for the patients' spiritual needs.
“They are focusing on the important things,” Fink said, “their love of family, and hope. They might pray for time, for healing, for comfort. But eventually, when I ask people what they are praying for, it's peace.”
And, according to those who work with them, many find it.
The staff at the Center for Hospice makes a point of “digging deeper” if treating physical symptoms has not brought relief, said Kelley Clem, chief nursing officer at the center.
“We examine the person's emotional status – What's going on with them? What's troubling them?” Clem said.
“It's not always about God,” Clem continued. If no religion is listed on the patients' charts, she said, “it does not necessarily mean they are not a spiritual person.”
One of the biggest issues many patients express, she said, is a need for reconciliation, with a loved one or a higher power. And sometimes, Clem said, this comes through prayer.
“You can absolutely see the peace come over them. You can see changes in breathing, relaxation – there's much less labor in their final journey,” she said. “It's pretty powerful.”
Beth Lenegan, director of pastoral care at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, also has witnessed a greater acceptance among physicians for treating emotional and spiritual needs, along with physical illness.
“I have seen more openness in terms of [doctors] wanting spiritual care to be a part of their work,” Lenegan said. “We hear readily from patients that their surgeon has prayed with them before surgery has begun.”
Patients don't have to be confronting their mortality to want spiritual comfort.
Dr. David Holmes, a family practitioner, teaches an upper-level course at UB's School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences on “Faith, Medicine and End of Life Care.” Holmes said that 20 years ago, perhaps 3 percent of medical schools offered a spirituality course; now the number is closer to 80 percent.
“My job is not to push religion; it's to improve the health and well-being of my patients,” said Holmes, who treats patients at ECMC's Cleve-Hill Family Health Center and also volunteers at Good Neighbors Health Care at Harvest House on Buffalo's lower East Side.
Holmes attends Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church and said that, when appropriate, he will share with patients that he believes in the power of prayer.
“It helps with the doctor-patient relationship, for them to know that their doctor thinks of them as more than a machine with so many moving parts,” he said.
Laura Iafrati, a fourth-year student who is taking Holmes' course, said that while all first-year students are taught to take a spiritual history when evaluating patients, time constraints can cause it to fall between the cracks.
She recalls one visit.
“I had asked a patient if he was religious or spiritual, and when he said yes, I got more specific, asking what religion he was, and how he practiced, and he just lit up,” Iafrati said. “He was much more receptive to what we were saying about making changes in his life. He kept saying 'You're the first who ever asked me about this.' ”
Making those connections is important, Holmes said.
“Anytime you can establish a better doctor-patient rapport, they are more likely to follow directions” relevant to their health care, she said.
Johnny Pennick, a Buffalo school bus driver, has been to the Good Neighbors clinic several times and said he prefers its brand of holistic, whole-patient care. Because of the way he is treated, he said, he makes sure to get to his appointments.
“It is truly, truly, truly a God-given blessing to be able to come here. The warmth, the welcome – they take the time to get to know you here,” Pennick said.
He has high blood pressure, which he treats in more than one way.
“I definitely pray, and I exercise every day,” Pennick said. “It's Him (God) first, then the medicine. And it's working.”
Medical and religious workers both say they have seen faster recovery and improved attitudes among patients who pray or who are prayed for – whether it is attributed to intervention of a higher power or the power of positive thinking.
The Rev. Edward H. Ihde of St. Nicholas Anglican Church in West Seneca has 25 years' experience ministering to the sick and administering the sacrament of Holy Unction and Laying on of Hands. His church had healing services each Wednesday through Lent, a time when people might be looking for spiritual as well as physical recovery, he said.
But sometimes, he believes, they get both.
“My brother, John, who was three years older than I, had cancer of the larynx. It had been diagnosed, and he went in for surgery to have the tumor removed. And it was gone,” Ihde said.
His brother's priorities changed to more personal fulfillment, and he lived seven more years.
The people at Hospice and Good Neighbors also recalled instances of “spontaneous” healing; they leave it up to their patients to decide the reasons behind it. Most gave opinions that agreed, in some way, with Ihde, who said: “God put us all on the earth for some reason. Doctors play their part; we play ours.”