Doctors, Patients, and Prayer


BOB FAW, correspondent: At Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center in Memphis, Tennessee, four-year-old Ethan Barker might seem carefree. But his parents, Chris and Tamara, are frightened about Ethan’s upcoming brain surgery. So when neurosurgeon Dr. Stephanie Einhaus asks if the family would like to pray, they readily agree.

DR. STEPHANIE EINHAUS (praying with family): We come before your throne today, Lord, asking for your blessing on this sweet child of yours.

FAW: Ethan’s surgery is delicate. Einhaus takes a bone from his skull and modifies it to cover a space created by an earlier surgery.

DR. EINHAUS: (in operating room): …the bone of the skull is kind of in two layers and so you can split it like an Oreo cookie…

post04 FAW: For this skilled practitioner, praying benefits her as much as the patient’s family.

DR. EINHAUS: If I’m having a hard time doing something, getting a catheter in a fluid space, I’ll just pause and in my own head I will pray, “Please, Lord, help me get this right.”

FAW: Einhaus says praying with families helps them with the stress and gives them hope.

DR. EINHAUS: It helps them to hold on to something to get through, you know, that crisis that’s going on. Most people want to do it. They’re like, they’re so relieved.

FAW: Eleven-year-old Holly Barkley, about to undergo surgery to drain fluid from her brain, does not face a crisis.

DR. EINHAUS (to patient): How’s your head feeling?

FAW: But her family also wants to pray.

DR. EINHAUS (praying with family): I pray that you will let this family feel your power, let them feel your peace, Lord…

FAW: Prayers like that, family members agree, can bring comfort.

CHRIS BARKLEY: It puts a sense of comfort in you. Normally, doctors don’t do that, and it probably makes people feel closer to the doctor. You want them to care just as much as you do.

LAURA YOUNG (Holly Barkley’s mother): It was more of the Lord was on our side, and it told me then it was going to be okay, and you know I was ready to—if anything came out negative, I was ready to face it.

DR. EINHAUS (to Ethan’s family): Hello. We are all done, and it went great.

FAW: Einhaus, raised Catholic and now a Southern Baptist, was once reluctant to pray with patients in the beginning for fear of being ridiculed. But as time went on she felt more comfortable asking patients if they would like to pray.

DR. EINHAUS: Once you start doing it you realize how much people really like doing it and how powerful it can be as a support for not only the patient but for the families.

FAW: You regard your role as a physician as a kind of ministry.

DR. EINHAUS: I do, I absolutely do.

post01FAW: In this part of the Bible belt, many patients—like Marletta Scott, facing difficult triple bypass heart surgery at Methodist South Hospital—say they would welcome a chance to pray with their doctor, even though Marletta Scott’s doctor, heart surgeon Alim Khandekhar, happens to be Muslim.

MARLETTA SCOTT: He did explain to me that, overall, that, you know, it was in the Lord’s hands and that he’d be watching over him as well as me during this procedure. I mean, and that’s all that we can ask for.

FAW: That makes you feel good, that gives you comfort?

MARLETTA SCOTT: Yeah, it does.

FAW: in his 32 years of professional experience, Khandekhar says he has found that patients with faith often recover faster.

DR. ALIM KHANDEKHAR: Because they rely not only on the doctors, the medicine, but they rely on a power that is more powerful than all of them, that puts them at ease with themselves, at ease with the decision they are making.

FAW: What all this suggests, especially in this part of the country, is a growing trend by physicians to treat physical and spiritual problems together. After all, says the founder of this Memphis clinic, 50 percent of the patients who come here for primary care do not have medical problems.

DR. SCOTT MORRIS (Founder, Church Health Center, and United Methodist Minister): Many of our physical complaints come about because of our spirits being broken. What they need is a way for us to help them deal with this spiritual devastation.

FAW: So here at the Church Health Center, which since 1987 has treated 60,000 low-income people without health insurance, the spiritual needs of a patient are addressed before they ever see a doctor.

DR. MORRIS: From my point of view, if we want to be healthier, you must have a healthy spirit as well as a healthy body. We know, I think, in our heart of hearts, that being at peace, being bathed in what a person perceives as the love of God, makes people healthier faster.

post02FAW: But mixing prayer with medicine can cause problems, especially when the goal of reducing suffering conflicts with the wishes of devout patients. For example, a recent AMA [American Medical Association] study found that patients of faith demand and get more aggressive treatment than is medically warranted, and there are also concerns that a patient can be exploited if a doctor uses prayer to proselytize, to promote certain beliefs.

PROFESSOR MARK MUESSE (Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Rhodes College): It might take the form of a particular kind of prayer that the patient might be uncomfortable with. It might include accepting certain kinds of creedal statements that the patient would not otherwise accept.

FAW: At Rhodes College, where he teaches comparative religion, Mark Muesse also worries that praying with a patient could compromise a doctor’s relationship with a patient.

PROF. MUESSE: There could be a boundary crossed there, that a doctor begins to lose his objectivity in relationship to a patient. You’re losing some of the critical distance, I think, that’s oftentimes necessary for proper medical treatment.

FAW: Physicians like Einhaus counter that even if that boundary is crossed, no harm need result.

DR. EINHAUS: No matter what, you’re going to develop a relationship with your patients, okay? So the fact that I’m praying with them may make that bond a little stronger, but in no way would it affect my judgment.

FAW: And that element of compassion, physicians argue, is what is often missing in the training many doctors receive.

DR. KHANDEKAR: During my training, you know, being a cardiac surgeon, I don’t think that part has been stressed enough. It helps me to have another power behind me to do what I do. I do not think enough doctors use this power.

FAW: Here, though, that recognition—that the spiritual can affect the physical—seems to be growing.

PROF. MUESSE: In the past, you know, doctors would take care of the body, and the ministers and the chaplains would take care of the soul, but now we’re seeing that those two things cannot be separated.

FAW: Shortly after his surgery, Ethan was almost as playful as before. Holly, too, was doing just fine. For each, medical technology prevailed.  But in this medical theatre, more and more physicians seem to be sharing a belief that there is more at work here than science and skill.

DR. EINHAUS: We’re not always in control. God’s always in control, and so things may not turn out the way we want them to. We may not like it.  We may not understand it this side of eternity. But we have to trust that he is still in control and that if they go and they die, that heaven is really a good place.

FAW: Here, where there is recognition that when in comes to healing, fixing the body alone is an incomplete, indeed, flawed approach.

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly this is Bob Faw in Memphis, Tennessee.

  • Effie Clarke

    This article is so true. Prayer helped me through the crisis of my daughter’s cancer as her caregiver as well as accepting her death. I rest in the assurance that we will meet again someday.

  • david

    I am a family physician and though I don’t make it a habit to pray with my patients, I frequently question them regarding their “spitual health”. Though they may get a taste of my spiritual views, I am a firm believer in free will. They can chose to do what they want with what I say. Certainly my advice about diabetes is frequently ignored as well! I do believe that “spiritual experience”, whether prayer is or is not included, does change the relationship, it does affect our judgement. The question needs to be does it improve care? My hope (and my prayer!) is that this interaction makes my care more complete and serves my patients better. We must all strive to be considerate and accepting. The man says that the most important thing is love, if we are acting in love, it’s better.

    Dr David

  • Philisa Russell

    I am a registered nurse and our son was diagnosed with non-obstructive hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in 2008. He is seven years old. Yes, we were devastated because he has never showed symptoms. My husband and I teach him that he is healthy, whole, and healed. We teach him to pray and talk to the God as if they were friends. This has strengthened him and our family as a whole. Because our faith and the faith we have build in him, he feels that God is always there to take care of him. We tell our children daily Prayer Changes Things. I truly feel that prayer and faith heals from the inside out no matter what illness you may go thru.

  • Crystal

    I was soo delighted to read this interview!! I think it is awesome that we have doctors that will pray not only with, but for the families. Unfortunately I haven’t had the chance to come across any that did that. I really respect their boldness and will to even do this. That was a beautiful interview!!

  • Dave Walker

    I am so delighted to have found this site. As an anaesthetist with a special interest in Intensive Care, I prayed regularly with my patients and their relatives (I have retired now). I cannot think of a time where the patient or relatives were not encouraged, and I saw God come through in so many amazing ways. I do not agree that it affects one’s judgement. In fact, if we pray while making clinical decisions our clinical judgement might even be better as the Lord gives us wisdom.

  • Dave Walker – godintheICU

    I really enjoyed the comments from the participants. I am an anesthesiologist and have prayed with my patients before surgery and in the Intensive Care Unit for the last 30 years. It added such a new dimension to my practice of medicine. As Prof Muesse and Dr Morris say a healthy person needs a healthy spirit as well as body and it is so good to be able to provide a more holistic healing by addressing that aspect as well.I suppose it is possible that the closeness that prayer brings can affect one’s objectivity but I think that the plus of having a doctor who includes God in the healing process offsets that by far. I have actually written about my experiences of praying with my patients in my book God in the ICU.