nearly five months early, Shel’be Pruitt weighed 17 ounces. She suffered
from pneumonia, and her heart and lungs were barely large enough to
work. Steven and Shaunte’ri Pruitt prayed day and night for their
daughter. Doctors and nurses at Loyola University Medical Center,
near Chicago, even as they used the latest technology to treat Shel’be,
advised the parents that prayer was indeed a valuable resource.
“It’s such a religious
place,” says Shaunte’ri, a devout Baptist, about Loyola. “So many
people said they were praying for us. One of the doctors put it best.
He said, ‘Shel’be will tell us whether she wants to go to heaven.’”
Born in July 1998, Shel’be
went home after a four-month stay at Loyola. She is doing well and
so is Loyola in its goal of treating the human spirit. Its medical
school is one of a growing number of U.S. medical schools which advocate
attending to the spirit as well as the body. Especially at Catholic
schools, medical students are taught to address patients’ spiritual
For many people, modern
medicine in the United States lacks heart and soul. Patients complain
of being mistreated by profit-driven managed care and hurried doctors.
The golden age of medicine, in which family doctors knew their patients
and emitted warmth and solicitude, is viewed as long gone.
A patient today can
feel like a number, poked and prodded like a malfunctioning machine.
But Catholic medical schools are leading the charge to restore health
to the practice of medicine. Medical school students learn that much
more is going on inside a patient than a faulty heart or balky limb.
“When a person has a
serious or chronic illness, God becomes very important,” says Dr.
David Larson, president of the National Institute for Healthcare Research
(NIHR) in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit group that studies the link
between faith and healing. “Medicine can offer patients a lot. But
we don’t necessarily offer hope. We don’t offer love very well. We
don’t offer meaning. Guess what does?”
Loyola University Medical
Center and its Stritch School of Medicine occupy a 70-acre campus
in Maywood, Illinois. The center, a testament to the power and glory
of modern medicine, has the oldest and most active heart-transplant
program in the nation. It performs the most bone-marrow transplants,
lung transplants and cornea transplants in Illinois. Its “flying emergency
room” helicopter saves people whose fate would have been sealed without
its traffic-defeating transport.
Amid the marvels of
modern medicine found in every patient’s room are the age-old fears
that accompany illness. “We teach our students that every serious
illness presents a crisis of meaning,” says Maureen Fuechtmann, associate
vice president for university ministry at Loyola. “This ranges from
simple fear to who will take care of my kids to a person’s sense of
vulnerability. We become more serious about God when we’re ill. We
start to understand our own fragility. We maybe understand there is
a God and it’s not me.”
Seriously ill people
frequently experience a heightened spirituality. In a study of 200
elderly patients in Kansas City, 91 percent said their initial response
to a new medical problem was prayer. A study of patients awaiting
heart surgery found that 96 percent used prayer as a coping mechanism.
The awakening of spirituality relates to theologian Martin Buber’s
conviction that “God culminates in the present moment.” God is part
of all human experience. The ill intensely experience God’s presence
even if they are not conscious of it.
“The spiritual issues
[regarding the sick] are related to relationships,” says Linda Bronersky,
a chaplain at Loyola. “There are issues of grief and reconciliation.
There might be unresolved anger....People have time to think and reflect.
They remember losses. They miss people.
“When most people are
in crisis, the spiritual side rises up. They’re in touch with a power
greater than themselves.”
in spirituality and medicine spans a medical student’s four years.
Loyola students spend time at hospices and assisted-living homes.
They learn how people endure long-term illness, chronic pain and dying.
Courses examine end-of-life concerns and reproductive issues. The
curriculum at Loyola, which enrolls Catholics and non-Catholics, promotes
respect for Jesuit and Catholic traditions, as well as other religious
Students also make rounds
with chaplains. It is then that they hear patients talk about their
fears and worries. The experience will help future doctors handle
the most sensitive situations they will face, including death.
Aveen MacEntee, then
a first-year student, vividly recalls one of her rounds with a chaplain.
The chaplain told the heart patient he would not make it. The patient
was stunned; his wife and children were crushed. “I never experienced
anything like that. I saw how the news created this wave of effect
in his family,” says MacEntee, a first-year resident in internal medicine
at the University of Chicago.
For MacEntee, the training
struck a nerve. As taught, she quietly takes a “spiritual history”
when taking a physical history. Is there someone the patient relies
on in a crisis? Is the person’s mother or father still alive? Is the
patient’s job going O.K.? She tries to establish a personal connection.
“A really good doctor cares about a patient as a person,” she says.
“I tell myself that this is someone’s mother, someone’s sister, someone’s
There is an indication
that the curriculum is succeeding: Third- and fourth-year Loyola students
are making more referrals to chaplains than students of years past
did. Doctors nationwide generally fail to alert chaplains to patients
in need. “We say we do it, but we don’t,” says Larson. “In all my
years of medical school I didn’t even know they existed.”
Loyola received a grant
from NIHR to implement spirituality courses, as did other schools
including Georgetown University’s School of Medicine in Washington,
D.C. Medical students there learn about studies linking religion and
health, how to take a spiritual history and examine ethical issues.
The U.S. medical community
is increasingly receptive to linking faith and medicine. “Ten years
ago this [the acceptance of faith and medicine] would have been unthinkable,”
says Dr. Dale Matthews, an internist and associate professor of medicine
at Georgetown. “Five years ago there was a murmuring in the medical
community. Today, it’s largely accepted.”
In 1995, Spirituality
and Healing in Medicine, a conference sponsored by Harvard Medical
School, drew nearly 1,000 health-care workers. A survey taken in 1996
by the American Academy of Family Physicians discovered that 99 percent
of family physicians believe in the ability of religious beliefs to
contribute positively to medical treatment.
Today, more than a third
of the nation’s 125 medical schools offer courses in faith and medicine,
a remarkable change from a few years ago when only a handful did.
Catholic medical schools, though initially slow to adopt faith-and-medicine
curricula, now lead the pack, says Larson. The policies of Catholic
hospitals and medical schools significantly affect health care in
the United States: Catholic hospitals are the nation’s largest nonprofit
Supporters of faith-and-medicine
initiatives note that young doctors instinctively want to relate to
the human spirit but often shed that approach over time. “Most people
come to medical school as whole, complete persons,” says MacEntee.
“The process changes you. You forget about the way you were. You come
up with defense mechanisms to deal with all the suffering you see.”
Even before finishing
school, students become “medicalized,” using medical jargon with patients
and losing the ability to relate to them as people, says Jesuit Father
Myles Sheehan, a doctor who is the course director of Loyola’s spirituality
and medicine curriculum.
The medical community’s
traditional resistance to spirituality reflects this country’s outlook
on privatization of spirituality and religion. Matters of the spirit
are pushed aside. As Rabbi Marc Gellman once observed, “The last socially
acceptable prejudice in America is prejudice against those who take
their faith seriously.” Medicine, understood as a branch of science
which shuns religion, historically has kept spirituality at an arm’s
Tradition of Caring
In contrast to modern
medicine, the Catholic tradition in medical care is deeply rooted
in the spirit. That makes perfect sense, given that Jesus cured the
ill while proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Jesus alleviated suffering
as a sign of God’s goodness and power entering the world. Faith itself
was enough to effect a cure.
Mark’s Gospel (5:25-34)
tells of the woman who reached out to touch Jesus’ robe. The biblical
passage that is the scriptural foundation for the Sacrament of the
Anointing of the Sick (James 5:14-15) suggests a link between healing
the body and healing the spirit.
In early Christian communities
the sick were cared for in their homes by deacons and deaconesses,
according to historian Christopher Kauffman. Baptism and the Eucharist
were viewed as having a curative effect on the sick.
After the legalization
of Christianity in the Roman Empire, Christians founded hospitals.
One of the most notable was the one started by Basil the Great around
372 in Caesarea in his diocese of Cappadocia. Later, Benedictine monks
included infirmaries in their monasteries. These evolved into hospitals.
Other religious communities
sponsored hospitals, a practice that continues today. From its earliest
days, Christianity transformed society’s care of the sick, says historian
Henry Sigerist. Ancient Greeks and Romans who took care of the sick
and poor did so because of a “civic philanthropy,” rather than charity
based on love.
Christianity was the
religion of healing, the religion of the Redeemer and of redemption.
Christians reached out to the suffering to heal the spirit and body.
The early Christians believed, as we do, that people are made in the
image and likeness of God and possess an inherent dignity.
health care with a spiritual underpinning. Body and spirit are inextricably
linked. Taking care of the sick is imitating Jesus. As St. Vincent
de Paul told his Daughters of Charity, “When you leave your prayers
for the bedside of a patient, you are leaving God for God. Looking
after the sick is praying.”
Medical schools that
teach the link between faith and healing are reinforcing the age-old
notion that medicine is God’s work. That notion predates even Christianity:
“Hold the physician in honor, for he is essential to you, and God
it was who established his profession” (Sirach 38:1). Catholics today
understand medicine as a vocation. “What we do as physicians caring
for patients is intimately related to spirituality,” says Sheehan.
“What we do is a manifestation of God’s healing power. Taking care
of the sick is part of the Kingdom of God.”
What does science say
about the relationship between body and spirit? The results of several
hundred published studies show a link between religious commitment
and better health, says Larson. Among the studies: