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Saturday, January 16, 2016

A Prescription Of Prayer

In case you haven't picked up on it through my profile or blog posts, I'm a Christian with pretty conservative religious beliefs.  I've always been open about that and don't plan on ever hiding it.  That being said, I also don't believe in being pushy about it and don't make a big deal my faith.  It's an integral part of who I am but I'm not going to go around with a bullhorn saying "Look at me, I'm a Christian!"
This is true in my job as well.  All of my staff know my beliefs, that I attend church and teach Sunday School, that I've given sermons and acted as a sort of pastor.  Some of my clients know this because it comes up during casual conversation.  But many more of my clients probably have no idea what my beliefs are because I don't walk into an exam room with "Hi, I'm Dr. Bern and I know Jesus as my personal savior."  I'll have conversations if someone asks or if it comes up in the natural process and flow of the visit, but otherwise I avoid such discussions.
Recently I read an article by Dr. Marty Becker on the subject of prayer in the veterinary office.  For those who aren't familiar with him, he is one of the most well known American veterinarians, having appeared on TV numerous times and having written multiple books.  When he came out describing his faith and his view on prayer, it surprised me a little, as he has some very traditional Christian views.  I don't know why it surprised me, but when he was open about his faith and how that related to his profession I realized that I had never imagined this about him.  It was also a shock to see such openness in a national veterinary trade journal.  Here's a quote from the article (linked above):

I’m on-my-knees sincere when I bring God into the treatment plan. I don’t force my beliefs on anyone else, but I’ve also only had one person that I know of take offense, ridicule the practice and leave as a result of it. So we’re about 5,000 to 1.

I end every exam with the simple word “blessings.” This is not the equivalent of “thanks” or “goodbye.” I mean it when I say “blessings” and they can include: may we come up with an accurate diagnosis, prognosis and treatment plan for your pet; may we relieve your pet’s pain or even cure it; may you, the pet owner, find health, happiness or a rich spiritual connection; even just have a great week.

I just read an article in Time magazine on “How Doctors Handle Faith.” It pointed out that many people who are legally bound to make medical decisions for a critically ill friend or loved one turn to faith for guidance. But when researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Duke University analyzed recorded chats between such surrogates and health care workers in ICUs across America, they found that spirituality rarely came up.

The study he's referring to reported that 78% of health care surrogates said that faith was important to them, but only 16% of ICU conversations about medical care touched on faith or religion.  And of those cases only 5.6% were initiated by the medical professional.

Religion is an extremely tricky subject to bring up for any professional.  I never know if my clients are Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, or any other kind of religion.  I don't want to offend anyone by talking about something that is personal or bothers them.  Unfortunately that may go against what many clients actually want!  Every time I've ever brought up my personal faith with a client it has always been met with enthusiasm and understanding.  Are we so afraid to offend someone that we are ignoring an aspect of care that the vast majority of people actually want?  I fear that is the case in today's hyper-sensitive cultures where the emphasis is on political correctness and not saying anything even potentially offensive.  In our care to avoid these topics and phrases we may not be providing the full amount of care that we could.

In a recent post I wrote about a family that lost a dove just before Christmas and had other tragedies going on in their lives.  What I didn't write about at the time was the involvement of prayer.  When they brought their pet in for the initial follow-up the owner mentioned church at the end of the visit.  To me that was an open door to try and help them in non-medical ways.  I asked if they would mind if I could include them in my prayers.  I've done this very few times over the years, and always when it seemed very appropriate.  She responded with an emphatic "yes".  Then I felt another urge, and did something I've done only a handful of times.  I asked if I could pray over her and her son right there.  And she said yes.  So I put my hand on the son's shoulder and prayed with them. I'm sure I surprised my tech, who hasn't seen me do anything like that.  But it really seemed to help the client.

I found out how much it helped when they came back the following week to euthanize their pet.  Previously it had been the female owner and her son, but this time they also brought her daughter and husband.  Just before we were going to give the injection she asked if I would pray like I had before.  I unhesitatingly agreed and prayed with all of them in the room before we eased the passing of their beloved bird.  There was a real benefit in adding prayer to the treatment plan.

Despite me being an open Christian I have rarely brought up faith and prayer with my clients.  Should I be?  The times that it has come up have always been positive, as this latest case has shown.  Numerous studies have espoused the benefit of prayer and religion in easing minds and even reducing stress to speed healing.  Why are we so afraid to use this tool?  It seems obvious that most clients don't mind and many really appreciate it.  Are we so hesitant to bring up anything offensive that we deny this proven benefit?  Are we so shaky in our own faith that we don't trust ourselves to be spiritual advocates?  Why do so many people turn to prayer for their own spiritual beneift and well-being but don't offer it as a comfort to others?

I don't know the answers.  This is a very personal issue to the clients and to the vets.  But after my recent experience and after reading Dr. Becker's article, I certainly think I'll be more open to the option.