When Andre Perez was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease last year, doctors prescribed chemotherapy and radiation treatments to shrink the grapefruit-sized tumor near his heart and the other cancerous spots in his body.
Perez and his wife, Ranee, chose an additional treatment option of their own: lots and lots of prayer.
“We said we’re gonna have to stand on faith and believe that God is our healer,” said Ranee, who at the time was six months pregnant with the Bluffton couple’s second child.
Family and friends started prayer chains for Andre’s health that spanned 18 countries. The couple’s pastor, the Rev. Michael Carr of Central Church on Hilton Head Island, prayed for him during a healing service. A group of faithful even came to the Perez home to surround the 34-year-old cancer patient with prayers.
Two months into his treatments, medical scans showed that “everything had disappeared except one little spot on his body,” Ranee said. To the Perez family, such a surprisingly fast improvement was mainly attributed to one thing — God.
The Perezes are typical of most religious faithful who are dealing with illness or disease. In addition to modern medicine, they overwhelmingly turn to prayer for hope and healing.
A 2003 Newsweek poll shows that 84 percent of Americans believe that praying for the sick improves their chances of recovery, and 72 percent say that praying to God can cure someone, even if the prognosis from the patient’s doctors is grim.
“That I do not doubt,” said Andre of the fact that praying for good health works.
For years, medical and religious studies have been trying to prove — or disprove — the power of prayer. Results have been mixed, though most agree on one thing: Studying prayer as it relates to restored physical health is, at best, an inexact science, because there’s no real way to tell who is being prayed for.
And it seems everyone is being prayed for. A Google search on “prayer” garners 11 million “hits” — including scores of online prayer chains, through which people pray for the well-being of both loved ones and strangers.
And weekly healing services are held in churches across the country — like St. Andrew By-the-Sea United Methodist Church on Hilton Head — in which participants are anointed with oil and prayed for.
“Prayer helps with attitude, in preparation for surgery, it’s very strengthening,” said Mitzi Ganelin, a member of St. Andrew who helps lead the local healing services.
Dr. Michael Coffey, a retired obstetrician and gynecologist on Hilton Head, has been battling lung cancer since early 2001. He said he is constantly approached by people — many of them former patients — who tell him they’re praying for him.
“What I tell ’em is, don’t stop (praying) now,” said Coffey, 63, who recently finished experimental treatments for the cancer, which had spread to his brain.
His wife of 40 years, Ann, wasn’t always comfortable with such attention. In the first two weeks after his diagnosis, the family received a barrage of “get well” cards.
“They all had some reference to prayer,” said Ann, whose first instinct was to reject such heartfelt sentiments because she saw them as proof that her husband was sick enough to need divine intervention.
“But pretty soon you realize there must be something — a power — to this,” she said of so many people petitioning God on her husband’s behalf. “God listens.”
But does he?
Lynda H. Powell, an epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, recently reviewed about 150 studies on religiosity and health. Her findings indicate that the evidence suggesting religion or spirituality protects against disability or slows the progression of cancer is very weak. On the other hand, she discovered that evidence suggesting church attendance prolongs life is very persuasive.
For example, a study of 21,204 adults, conducted at the University of Texas at Austin from 1987 to 1995, found that those who attended a religious service at least once a week lived an average of nearly seven years longer than those who didn’t.
But even that statistic has its doubters.
“Attending church services means simply that you attend church services. Many people get absolutely nothing out of them,” said the Rev. Jim Koerber, a Unitarian Universalist and chaplain for Palmetto Health Hospice in Bluffton.
Koerber believes that attending a worship service or praying can build up a person’s spiritual reserves in much the same way that physical exercise builds one’s immune system. And both can help one’s health.
“Someone said ‘Prayer doesn’t change things, prayer changes people, and people change things,’ ” Koerber said. As a hospice chaplain, he ministers to those who actively are facing their own mortality, having been given, at best, six months to live. Though he believes in the power of prayer to heal, he chooses not to pray that his patients’ physical health will be restored.
“I worry more for their spiritual health,” he said.
Coffey, too, has come to worry more for the spiritual health of his loved ones. His focus has shifted, since his diagnosis and subsequent retirement, to bringing friends — especially ones who are ill — closer to God.
“I’m still practicing in a different way of healing,” said the former doctor, who attends St. Francis By the Sea Catholic Church on Hilton Head, and has seen three friends die of lung cancer in the year since his own diagnosis.
It may be easy to discuss religion with friends, but broaching the subject with one’s doctor is trickier. Centuries ago, medicine and religion were fused together. Today, some medical professionals say religion has no place in the doctor’s office. Others beg to differ.
Dr. Gary Thomas, an oncologist on Hilton Head, welcomes prayer in his profession. Thomas doesn’t bring up the topic of religious faith to his patients, but when they do, he doesn’t shy away from it.
“Every time a patient wants me to pray with them, I do. I’m very happy to do it,” said the Catholic doctor, who’s been practicing on the island for 14 years. Thomas adds a caveat to that request: He asks that the patient prays for the doctor as well.
Thomas frequently recites “A Physicians Prayer,” given to him by a priest years ago, in which he asks God for skill, sympathy and strength. And a few of the employees in his office huddle together each morning for a quick group prayer, asking God that the patients they’re treating be healed.
“We don’t miss a day,” said office manager Saundra Punzel of the morning ritual.
Coffey says his job always was made easier when patients were open about their spirituality, as well as their physical ailments. And whenever asked, he prayed with them.
“Some professionals don’t want to cross that line, for whatever reason,” he said of the distinction between medical science and spiritual beliefs. As a gynecologist, Coffey’s patients were mostly women, he said, who are “pretty good at opening up.”
“My feeling is that it’s more difficult as a physician treating a patient who hasn’t got much of a faith-based background,” he said. “They have nothing to look forward to (after death).”
Equally challenging, Coffey said, is treating a patient whose medical care is dictated by his or her religious beliefs. More than once he was confronted with the dilemma of treating a Jehovah’s Witness patient, whose beliefs forbid blood transfusions, among other things.
“You bit the bullet, you took care of them. You tried to control as many things as you could. And the rest you left to God,” he said. “But you respect those people’s beliefs. Should I go against their faith? Not if they’re gonna have faith in me.”
“Leaving the rest up to God” is not found on a medical chart but is both a recognized limitation and power to doctors like Thomas and Coffey.
“It’s not my call,” Coffey says over and over again when asked about his own health and the health of patients past.
Andre Perez said his faith once was tempered with a mindful doubt about God’s will. After all, if God has his mind made up, what power could his prayers have, anyway? But his mother-in-law told him that perhaps the more God hears his name through prayers, the more he listens.
“I don’t really know. That’s why I base it on faith,” he said.
Coffey isn’t sure his body is better because of his faith, but he is sure his mind and heart are stronger because of it.
“I don’t wake up scared every morning,” he said. “I don’t go to bed scared every night.”
In his 35 years as a practicing physician, Coffey estimates he delivered about 5,000 babies, recognizing the miracle in every one of them.
And those miracles of life and medicine keep coming.
Many in the religious community point out that God has given us the technology, and the brains, to come up with the medical breakthroughs that are prolonging lives every day. So, essentially, someone praying for their own health years ago could have triggered a new technology that is, in turn, the answer to a new patient’s prayers today.
“I think God has given me the talents and training to help people, and I’m gonna do my very best,” Thomas said. “But it’s ultimately up to him.”
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