Faith can find its place in the medical field, but conflicts between the fundamentals can occur.
A 2003 Harris poll found that 90 percent of American adults believe in God. Transferred to Utah County, that includes nine out of every 10 people who walk through the doors of the county’s five hospitals, half-dozen urgent care clinics and hundreds of doctor’s offices. All of those 90 percent, on both sides of the stethoscope, bring their spiritual beliefs into the room in some way.
Teaching the healers
At BYU and other church-run schools, a religious bent in class is anticipated. But plenty of state-run nursing programs and medical schools find spirituality important enough to factor into their curriculum as well.
“Each class has a little bit on that,” said Gary Measom, chairman of the nursing department at UVSC.
The spiritual thread runs through courses, primarily addressing how to deal with patients’ varying religious beliefs and what is appropriate. Utah Valley Regional Medical Center Chaplain Alden Brown and other religious leaders have spoken to classes about patients’ needs and how the physical and spiritual aspects can work together. Teachers also address the difference between religion and spirituality; often people don’t identify with any religion or believe in God but they do believe in a higher power or some form of spiritual essence.
The spiritual discussions aren’t a new thing, he said. It’s been a part of the curriculum for at least the six years he’s taught at UVSC. It’s there because it’s important, he said, something he learned during his 30 years as a nurse.
“I have seen patients that I didn’t think could get better who had family support, the beliefs that they had, they got better,” he said. “This happened numerous times.”
Pam Hugie, the curriculum administrator at Weber State University’s nursing program, said the fundamentals of nursing class includes several units on different religions, including Mormonism, Catholicism, other Christian beliefs, Buddhism, Islam and other religions where there is student interest and faculty expertise. The units focus on the value of spirituality and how nurses can handle varying faiths. It’s also addressed in a couple of other required courses as well as a class on alternative therapies that includes faith therapy.
“It’s more helping the patients meet their own individual needs for spirituality,” she said.
Hugie’s been a nurse for 37 years and has come across those needs hundreds of times, both personally as she deals with the challenges of her job and professionally as she helps patients. Deaths, births and terminal diagnoses are the most common cases that require special handling when it comes to religion, but she’s run into plenty.
One example Hugie gave was homosexuality.
“Many people have spiritual beliefs, strong beliefs about homosexuality, and yet we have patients that are homosexual and need to have their companions there for support,” she said.
In that case, they support the patient, regardless of their beliefs about homosexuality. Part of the education includes teaching that a nurse’s beliefs are to help the nurse cope with difficult situations, not direct them.
“We teach students that our value system is not our patients’ value system,” she said. “We try to help our students understand our own spirituality and the basis for others’ spirituality.”
Hospitals have changed throughout the past decade, becoming a little less institutional and a little more open to individual beliefs, as evidenced by Brown’s presence and the chapel adjoining his office.
Six pews fill the little room, with an aisle wide enough to accommodate a hospital bed or a coffin and plenty of space in the back for wheelchairs and IV trees. A piano sits in one corner and a table that doubles as a Catholic altar and an LDS sacrament table sits in the other. A cross, menorah and prayer bowl, half-filled with names, sit up front, and a picture of Jesus Christ with a young child on his knee decorates the back wall.
The chapel is intended to be nondenominational so a person of any faith, or a person with no faith at all, can sit in a quiet place and think about life-or-death questions. There have been a couple of funerals there, a couple of weddings, a Jehovah’s Witness baptism and LDS baby blessings.
There is also a Catholic mass at noon on Thursdays and a LDS sacrament meeting on Sunday mornings for patients, family members and staff.
Mass is usually a small group, Rev. Michael Sciumbato, the pastor at St. Franics of Assisi Catholic Church said, including a few of his parishioners and staff, as well as patients or family members who are in the hospital. It’s a short ceremony, filled with encouragement, praying for the sick and the “beloved dead,” as well as the hospital staff and volunteers, “that they might see in their work here a sharing of the healing ministry of the Lord.”
Sacrament meeting has a similar setup, although the group is larger. Patients and family members fill the pews, and a couple of wheelchairs line the back. Employees in scrubs sit along the back row so they can leave after sacrament, a process that takes about five minutes.
Events that would be noteworthy in other meetings are part of the day here. One man passing the sacrament gently nudged a woman in a wheelchair who’d fallen asleep. During a talk, an IV’s low battery started beeping; the speaker continued while people in the congregation shifted chairs and plugged the machine into the wall.
Ned Hall, president of the Heather Ridge 8th Service branch, said they’ve grown used to the intricacies of holding a meeting under unusual circumstances. Women in jeans aren’t out of place. Paramedics in their blues are a welcome sight. Doctors in scrubs bless the sacrament.
“The doctors themselves realize the importance of spiritual healing,” he said.
When faith changes
NICU nurse Tami Phillips once heard a new father say he’d like to have faith that God would heal his premature infant, but that wasn’t faith. Faith was praying for God’s will to happen, even if that meant his child died.
Those words have remained with Phillips.
“I try to take the philosophy of the father years ago that we do what we can do and God’s will is above all,” she said.
Reconciling one’s self to God’s will can be a faith-changing experience, though. Gail McGuill, the chief nursing officer at Utah Valley, considers herself a woman of strong faith. She knew as a young adult, when her father died, that he was with God and she’d see him again.
That didn’t stop her from feeling cheated by his death. She didn’t lose her faith, she didn’t blame God. But she felt like something had gone awry.
“People often go through the range of questions, the range of emotions and feelings as they are faced with a disease that may be terminal or a disease that may be difficult to get through,” Brown said.
Shaken faith, questioning and even losing one’s belief in God can all happen when something goes wrong. Family members wonder why others have been healed, why no promise of healing filled prayers or priesthood blessings, why someone so young, so good, so healthy, could die.
Marie Few, mother of a 7-week-old baby born 17 weeks early, had momentarily lapses, she said. When Ava was 10 days old she got very sick, and Marie found the peace and faith she’d had after her daughter’s difficult birth gone in the wake of this new challenge. Several prayers and a couple of blessings later and she was comforted again, she said, but perfect faith is hard to attain.
Rev. Dean Jackson of the Rock Canyon Assembly of God Church said that’s one aspect of God he doesn’t understand. He has prayed passionately for friends whom he loved, who were good people and who should have been healed. They weren’t. He has prayed for others because he was asked to pray, so he did, but not because he thought they particularly deserved healing. They were.
Why certain people live and others die is a question he’ll have to wait until the next life to ask, he said. He has met some people, though, who ask it and want an answer now, and as a result pull away from their religious beliefs.
“Whenever things don’t go right, somebody needs to be blamed in a lot of people’s minds,” he said. “God gets blamed for a lot of things.”
Often, people deal with their emotions and return to God, spirituality or their religious beliefs in time. Sometimes they don’t.
Then there’s the other side and the question of miracles, big or small. For Brown, the work that goes on in the hospital reinforces his belief in God.
“I think miracles happen here every day, and the people who experience those credit them as miracles, and I certainly do,” he said. “I believe miracles are based on blessings given, prayers said, faith exercised.”
Sciumbato said every time someone is healed it’s a miracle, although one that jumped out was an old man dying of leukemia to whom he gave the last rites — who then went home and is still doing well. Jackson thinks about his father, who should have died so many times in his life but instead is still enjoying life. All those cases may be a miracle and may not be, he said; doctors and nurses certainly do good work, but there are times when the health care providers are left scratching their heads.
If it’s God’s will
You’re sick. You’ve had flu symptoms for a week that rest, orange juice and chicken soup haven’t resolved. Each day your body feels worse. Your best case scenario is a prolonged visit from the flu bug. The worst? Possibly meningitis, malaria or West Nile Virus.
For most Americans, the reaction at this point is to call the doctor and make an appointment as soon as possible. But for members of certain religious groups like Christian Scientists, the Living Word Assembly of God or Faith Assembly, you may forego the doctor, medicine and medical technology in favor of faith and prayer.
“It’s thought that if a certain course of action with regard to somebody’s health is inevitable, it would be going against God’s will and God’s plan to intervene,” UVSC philosophy professor David Keller said.
Praying is certainly a common part of the healing process. The same study that said prayer wasn’t found to help heart patients still reported that two-thirds of the participants strongly agreed with the statement, “I believe in spiritual healing.”
Elizabeth Beall, the only member of the Christian Science committee on publications for Utah, said the idea that all Christian Scientists eschew medical treatment is false. The religion is founded on the idea of individual choice and doesn’t have a doctrine on medicine, instead encouraging its members to choose their treatment.
“The idea is that the practice of Christian Science results in practical good, and that includes one’s health,” she said.
Many Christian Scientists opt for prayer because they feel it is a more complete way of addressing a problem. If a person had a foot problem, Beall said, he could either go see a doctor about it or could rely on his relationship with God for the healing power to rid himself of fear and pain.
“In that way Christian Science has the potential to bring change and healing to every aspect of that individual’s life instead of just their foot,” she said.
Others who adhere to this philosophy may be part of a “holiness movement,” in which Jackson’s grandparents took part. It was similar to a fundamentalist belief in addition to their Christian beliefs; they simply didn’t go to doctors or take medicine.
“The thought process for most of these people is that if we have enough faith, we don’t need doctors,” he said.
That’s a difficult pill for doctors to swallow, said Keller, whose father is a physician. Part of the Hippocratic oath doctors take requires them to apply all available measures to heal sick people, while also respecting their patients’ decisions.
“All of their training tells them that’s what they should do,” he said.
The Joint Commission’s accreditation standards and almost every hospital’s policy dictates that while doctors can advise, educate, recommend and discuss possible outcomes and alternatives, the patient has the final decision on treatment.
There have been disagreements, in courts and otherwise, about parents’ rights to not seek medical treatment for their children. That is seen primarily in congregations that encourage prayer and healing, but it is heard of in Utah in the form of a religious exemption law for vaccinations.
Utah law requires children going to public school be immunized, but it also allows parents to submit a statement about their personal belief opposed to immunizations or a statement that they are a “bona fide member of a specified, recognized religious organization whose teachings are contrary to immunizations,” according to Utah code.
Statistics from the last two years show about 5 percent of Utah’s children have none of the required immunizations by the time they start school, which is higher than past years. According to the 2006 Utah Immunization Coverage Report, almost half of the people who exempted themselves or their children from vaccines listed a belief conflict: 46.3 percent statewide and 47.6 percent in the county. But not all of those were religious beliefs. Preliminary results of a study looking at Utah County found only 1.3 percent of parents agreed or strongly agreed that their religious beliefs do not support the immunization of children.
Some religions do have specific beliefs in conflict with accepted medical practice. One of the most well-known is that of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who don’t get blood transfusions. Greg Spell, an elder in Salem’s Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, said the tenet comes from a scripture in Acts that commands abstention from blood. It has nothing to do with not getting the best care or avoiding medicine, he said, it’s about obeying God.
“We feel that he’s the best physician, and if he tells us to abstain from something, we know it’s for the best,” Spell said.
In recent years, hospitals and doctors nationwide have started offering bloodless surgeries, both for Jehovah’s Witnesses and for people who don’t want a blood transfusion because of health concerns, which is becoming more common, he said. Jehovah’s Witnesses should carry a directive with them informing a health care professional in case of an emergency.
Questions and answers
Today, Mark Purcell, the LDS missionary whose heart stopped in the MTC and then, against the odds, started beating again after 20 minutes, is anxiously awaiting his return to the MTC. His mother said he’ll most likely go back to his original mission: Carlsbad, Calif., Spanish speaking. He hasn’t spent the unexpected time sitting at home to avoid ever stressing his heart; he’s visited with friends, had a merry Christmas and gone snowboarding a couple of times.
“He’s gonna make sure he lives life to the fullest,” Jeanne Purcell said.
They know now what’s wrong with him; Mark has a prolonged QT, an electrical condition in the heart that cause an irregularly fast rhythm, or heart arrhythmia. That night his heart was beating out of rhythm and blood couldn’t get into the different chambers. Now he knows what to look for and is under a doctor’s care; his mother said the cardiologist is working with him and his medication to make sure he’s healthy so he can have his life back.
Even after all this time, though, they’re still not sure what caused him to wake up in the middle of the night and tell his companion something was wrong, what caused the BYU policeman to drive by just as he collapsed, why he came back from the dead after 20 minutes and survived without any brain damage.
At those moments, Jeanne believes, God was watching over her son. It is moments like those, religious people believe, that God steps in.
“It’s God reaching down and touching fragile humanity at the deepest point of its needs,” Jackson said.
Jan. 22, 2007