You told a remarkable story at a recent conference on complementary and alternative medicine about physicians praying for a patient of yours. Would you tell it again?
I'd been helping to take care of a girl in the intensive care unit. She was 13 years old and had a malformation of a blood vessel in her brain. Part of the malformation ruptured and caused a major stroke. She was scheduled to have a procedure to prevent her from having another stroke. It's a very high-risk procedure and is prone to a lot of complications. I had been doing Reiki [a physical therapy that uses the body's energy for healing] with her every day, but the day of her procedure I was scheduled to give a talk at a medical meeting at the very same time. Her father asked me if I could do Reiki for her that morning, and I told him I was sorry but would be at the conference and asked him if he'd like me to pray for her instead. And he said yes.
I realized then that I was going to ask people I had never met to pray--something I'd never encountered before at a medical meeting--so I spent a pretty sleepless night. But at 8 o'clock the next morning, I asked that the doors at the back of the conference room be closed so people wouldn't be coming in and out, and I explained the situation to about 400 people who were at the conference and asked if we could have a moment of silent prayer, or of sending good will or good wishes to this girl. And we did that.
|I was going to ask people I had never met to pray--something I'd never encountered before at a medical meeting.|
Later in the talk, I was discussing prayer as a therapeutic option and asked how many people had ever been asked to pray at a medical meeting before. About three out of 400 people raised their hands. Then I asked how many would be willing to do it again and about 85% raised their hands. That was a very interesting response from physicians who were at an evidence-based medicine conference.
And what happened?
The girl did very well. I came back to the hospital to see her afterward, and her father told me he'd talked to the neuro-radiologist who said it had gone more smoothly than other times they had done this, that the group in the procedure room was in tremendous harmony, and that things flowed very smoothly and there was not a single complication.
At the point when I was taking care of her she was completely paralyzed on her right side from the stroke. She couldn't move her right arm or her leg at all. She came back to see me several months after her discharge. She was walking, and she arm-wrestled me with the hand that had been previously paralyzed. And she won. A pitiful commentary on my fitness level I suppose, but she was really proud of herself and was regularly arm-wrestling her dad and her big brothers and anybody else she could take on. It was great fun for her. Her parents were very pleased and grateful.
What impressed you most about this experience?
I don't know whether the event was as much an indication that prayer worked as an indication that physicians were willing to pray for someone they didn't know and do it again, even though they didn't know what the outcome was. I thought it was a very interesting commentary on how much we are--or are not--evidence-driven, and how much we do things because they feel right to us or make us feel better in some way.
Did you get any feedback from the physicians who prayed?
Yes, it was interesting. People often give you nice feedback after you give a presentation, but after that talk, half a dozen people wrote me letters or called to find out how this girl had done. Again, I think that's unusual. Often in a medical lecture, we present the story of a patient or several patients and use their stories to illustrate some principles in medicine or something we can learn from. But I'd never been asked how a patient was doing in follow-up. After this one, however, where people felt as if they had participated somehow in her care, they really felt connected and wanted to know how she had done.
It's not terrifically unusual to be asked by a patient to pray, and the more open you are toward it, the more likely you'll be asked. But it's very, very unusual for a physician to be asked by another physician to pray. Even though it's outside of our usual culture and tradition, it's something most physicians are happy to do. And it's a very meaningful experience.
|You can be on an Internet prayer list, and pretty soon there can be people all over the world praying for you and you have no idea who they are.|
Some research has shown that the benefits are more for the people praying than those prayed for. Do you disagree with that?
Oh yes. There are many studies that show the contrary. A group out of California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco did a study published last year in the Western Journal of Medicine looking at remote intercessory prayer for patients with advanced AIDS. The patients didn't know whether they were in the prayed-for group or the control group. Those who were prayed for did significantly better on a number of parameters, both psychological health and physical. They are now repeating that study with breast cancer patients. And there are a handful of others.
So the upshot is that patients benefit even if they don't know they're being prayed for?
Right. And even if they don't know the people praying for them.
The prayer circles on Beliefnet, in fact, are one of our most popular features. They are a prime example of people praying for people they don't know.
Which is interesting. There are still few studies looking at remote intercessory/blinded kind of prayer, because, in fact, that is not how most people receive prayer. They go to a church and know that they are on the prayer list there. Or they know that their friends or family are praying for them. But things are changing in an interesting fashion with the Internet. You can be on an Internet prayer list that is in turn forwarded to other groups, and pretty soon there can be people all over the world praying for you and you have no idea who they are.