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Using Faith To Heal the Sick
By Brent Wolfe
April 30, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Part of the MPR News project Religion in Everyday Life

Advances in medicine give physicians better tools to heal the sick, but some patients feel their humanity gets overlooked by doctors focused on equipment, medication, and the pressure to see more patients. Studies show a relationship between faith and health and ,any medical schools are teaching doctors how to use spirituality as another tool to heal.

MARY HELEN GUNKLER'S LIFE CHANGED FOREVER seven years ago. That's when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She had to quit her job as a clinical nutritionist at General Mills and within three years she lost the use of her arms and legs. She says MS forced her to set new goals in life - something she couldn't have done without firmly held beliefs.

Gunkler: I face daily challenges which I realize now, because of my spirituality, I get through. It's not easy to wake up every morning and wonder what time the nurse is going to get there so that someone will get you out of bed. Because otherwise I would lie there all day. So those kinds of little things, I've organized because I have this inner strength that says, now you can do this.
Gunkler says she believes in a life force, a God if someone wants to call it that, that gives meaning and purpose to life however difficult it may become. She says doctors are used to giving diagnoses and making predictions but she wants them to understand that won't work for her.
Gunkler: It takes much more than having answers to treat a person with a chronic disease. Because when you see us as a doctor, there isn't anything you can offer us. There's very little, other than treating symptoms, that you can do. So it's very important to listen, to ask the right questions rather than wait to be asked and give answers.
More and more medical schools are encouraging their students to ask questions and just listen. Nearly half of the nation's medical schools offer classes that address issues of spirituality. Doctor Greg Plotnikoff is the medical director at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality. He says the classes show a willingness on the part of medical professionals to consider more than just a patient's physical condition.
Plotnikoff: It's now safe to talk about this. I think in the past people feared the response that their colleagues might provide - oh, someone has gone off the deep end. But in fact, as we focus more and more on potassium levels rather than people, we realize something profound has been lost and that's what were hoping to recapture.
But teaching doctors how to heal patients by combining faith with medicine is very different than teaching a procedure.
Plotnikoff: You can't teach it in facts and figures and lectures. It has to be learning from the inside out. It has to be a form of personal growth and transformation, and that is not something you can hand to someone. It's not something you can take notes and memorize. It really has to do with one's maturation as a healer.
In Plotnikoff's "Faith, Cultures, and Health Care" class for nursing and social work students, patients and spiritual leaders discuss healing techniques that include faith. Recently students sat in a circle with two black ministers talking about the notion that some African Americans view suffering as an inevitable part of life, dating back to days of slavery.
Unidentified speaker: Is it offensive to say you don't have to suffer maybe this pain or this symptom or this pain, because we can help with that? If you tell someone you don't have to suffer, is that received in an offensive way?
Second unidentified speaker: It can be because you don't know why they have developed that understanding, that theological tenet. It may be the only way they can handle that their son was slain, that their daughter is on drugs, you know what I'm saying? These core beliefs get right to a person's ability to function. I think what's more supportive is to listen and to say, "tell me more about how you feel...."
The idea is to get medical professionals to respect different cultures and faiths, realizing that sometimes the best thing to do is listen to a patient tell their story. Third year medical student Retu Saxena says doctors need to be open to anything that might help a patient.
Saxena: Physicians should be taught to be more open to patients and have patients talk to them about all the different practices that they're doing, whether it's seeing a shaman for spiritual guidance, or talking to their priest about their illness, or whether it's seeing a chiropractor, that doctors should be open enough to let their patients talk about it because it does affect their health.
Multiple sclerosis patient Mary Helen Gunkler talks to medical students because she sees it as part of her mission to help others. But she says it's important to remember these are medical students, not divinity students.
Gunkler: With topics that aren't directly related to their field, if we just dip their fingers in, we've done a lot. These kids are not stupid. And they pay attention and they hear you and at this point I think we've done a lot. I would rather not forgo all the other learning in order to teach them about spirituality.
Gunkler and many students think an openness to spirituality is the wave of the future in medicine and they even predict HMOs will one day cover treatments that include an element of faith.