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."
In Critical Decisions, I write about the difficulty physicians have had achieving the goals of the patient empowerment revolution. Most doctors now understand that all healthcare decisions should involve the patient -- that their values are critical to making the right choices. But
many of us don't know how to effectively partner with our patients in making these decisions. We don't know if we are supposed to simply give patients information and
get out of the way or, instead, guide patients to what we consider to be the right choice.
Some get so caught up in the role of information provider that they overwhelm patients with jargon-filled soliloquies. Others are so comfortable running the show that they make assertive clinical
recommendations before they have even taken a moment to diagnose their patients' preferences.