Should Your Doctor Pray With You?

People in the hospital are usually in hard times. Nearly half would like their doctor to pray with them.
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"I can fix this."

The neurosurgeon was nothing if not confident.

"The cyst is pushing on your spinal cord. If it continues to expand, it will damage your nerves and you may lose the ability to walk. But I can remove the cyst, and cure you."

The patient was a business school professor, a man comfortable with risk-benefit ratios and complex decisions. He probed for more information. The surgeon was happy to provide him with some numbers.

"There's an 80 percent chance you're cured. You sail through surgery. But there is a 3 percent chance of a very bad outcome -- death or paralysis. And then a 15-17 percent chance of more minor side effects, things you will recover from."

The professor was not happy to learn these numbers, but given the inevitability of paralysis if he didn't get the procedure, the 3 percent figure sounded well worth the risk. So he agreed to undergo the surgery.

"To ignore spirituality is to ignore a central piece of what it means for many people to be a patient."

Days later, he lay on a bed in the pre-operative suite, an IV in his arm and blue hospital socks adorning his feet. The neurosurgeon came by to check in on him. He re-explained the procedure and its risks. The professor was unmoved. He understood the situation and felt good about his chances. Then, just when it looked like the surgeon would head back to the operating room, he instead lowered his head and held the professor's hands.

And began to pray.

Not pray as in silently meditate by the bedside. But pray out loud, in an almost Pentecostal, sermon-y kind of way. The professor told me his story several weeks after that day: "He went on for what felt like three or four minutes," he told me.

"Was it generic mono-theism?," I asked.

"No. It was very explicitly Christian. Lots of 'Jesus this' and 'Christ that.' Specific scripture quotes too, replete with the names and numbers of the book of origin."

"He 2-Corinthianed you?"

"That was what was so strange. We hadn't talked about religion before that moment. And if he had looked in my medical record, he would have seen that I listed myself as an atheist. I was flabbergasted. I looked over at my wife, and she was as bewildered as me. When we caught each other's eyes, we had to look away to keep from laughing."

***

As physicians, we interact with patients during some of the most important moments of their lives -- at their births and at their deathbeds, at events bursting with spiritual significance. And yet most of us are afraid to talk about spirituality with our patients, much less discuss religion, out of fear that such conversations would be inappropriate. We are afraid even though many patients want to discuss these matters with their. By one estimate, 48 percent percent of patients would like physicians to pray with them.

That is what is so striking about the professor's story. Here he was, a hyper-rational atheist, on the receiving end of a sermon from a surgeon who was clearly not afraid to "talk God" with his patients. He was so unafraid, in fact, that he didn't bother to figure out whether his patient was interested in sharing a moment of Christian prayer.

The surgeon was also oblivious to the likelihood that a Corinthian-laden bedside prayer would have caused most patients to worry about the risks of the procedure. The professor's take: "He told me everything would be fine, and then he prayed over me like a priest doling out last rites! If I didn't understand the statistics, I would have wondered what I was getting myself into."

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Presented by

Peter Ubel

Peter A. Ubel, MD, is a physician and behavioral scientist at Duke University and the author of Critical Decisions: How You and Your Doctor Can Make the Right Medical Choice Together. He writes regularly at PeterUbel.com.

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