Few years back, I was watching a cricket match where India was playing the final, and the match was evenly poised until the very last over. It was so intense and nerve-wracking that one of the commentators commented something like “oh …. there will be prayers on the lips of every Indian watching this match…..”. Eventually India won that match. My concentration in bringing this story is not with the match but the comments passed by that commentator. I believe that if India was in an easy win situation, the commentator would not have commented the way he did. Similarly, when we are well and doing fine, too often we take life for granted and we don’t take our spiritual life seriously (of course I don’t intent to generalize every individual here). However, when we get sick and when we ourselves suffer, or when we go through some difficult times, only thenwe tend to look for meaning, hope, purpose, values, prayers, source of strength etc and we tend to search God. In other words, we tend to be more spiritual when we are in pain or when we suffer. This is very much evident especially in the context of healthcare institutions, where so many ailing patients are treated every day.
In any healthcare set up, compassionate care to the patients is what is expected from every healthcare professionals that includes the doctors, nurses, technicians, counselors, chaplains etc.As the word ‘compassion’ means ‘to suffer with’, compassionate care calls us to walk with people in the midst of their pain, to be co-partners with the patients rather than dictating information to them.
Victor Frankyl, a holocaust survivor during the 2nd World War, in his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, rightly points out that “Man is not destroyed by suffering; he is destroyed by suffering without meaning”. As such, one of the challenges for any healthcare professional today, is to help their patients find meaning and acceptance in the midst of their suffering and painwith chronic illness or disease.
Researchers have found that religion and spirituality form the basis of meaning and purpose for many people, and this is indeed very true specially in a state like ours, where majority are Christians, that at the end of everything, we turn to God for meaning and purpose.
Defining Spirituality, Health and Healthcare:
Now, when we talk about spirituality, health and healthcare, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) gives a broad definition of spirituality as – “Spirituality is recognized as a factor that contributes to health in many persons. The concept of spirituality is found in all cultures and societies. It is expressed in an individual’s search for ultimate meaning through participation in religion and/or belief in God, family, naturalism, rationalism, humanism, and the arts. All of these factors can influence how patients and healthcare professionals perceive health and illness and how they interact with one another.”[i]Moreover, according toMario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, researchers and authors of The Spiritual Brain, they define spirituality as “any experience that is thought to bring the experiencer into contact with the divine”.Similarly, spirituality can also be understood as“seeking a meaningful connection with something bigger than yourself, which can result in positive emotions, such as peace, awe, contentment, gratitude, and acceptance.”[ii]
Secondly, the WHO defines Health as “a dynamic state of complete physical, mental, spiritual, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.
Thirdly,Merriam Webster dictionary defineshealthcare as, “efforts made to maintain or restore physical, mental, or emotional well-being especially by trained and licensed professionals.”[iii]I would like to add – to restore ‘spiritual well-being’ as well, in line with the definition of health.
From all these definitions and statements, we see that there is no doubt, an inter-connectedness and relationship between spirituality, health and healthcare.
Effects of Spirituality on Health:
As per variousstudies and research, we can look at the effects of spirituality on health under three main categories/areas – mortality, coping and recovery.
Mortality – Various studies and research suggest that people who have a regular spiritual practice tend to live longer. I believe this is true to a very large extent. There are numerous stories and testimonies to substantiate this, even from our own context.
Our palliative team happened to visit this uncle, a retired government official, with various complications. Though he had these complications, his outlook was positive and he had a deep sense of spirituality. Every time we visited him, he used to talk about God and how God strengthens himto carry on day by day. Today, he is above 90, and still going strong.
Another living example is Rev. Dr. Noksangla, a very loving and God- fearing lady. We had long sessions of sharing and interactions when she got admitted in our hospital last year. Though with age, her strength is failing, yet she is still very strong in prayers. And I believe, her faith and her relationship with God, is what is sustaining herthus far.
Coping – It has been observed that patients, who have a deep sense of spirituality and have deeper connection with the Divine, tend toimprove their stress controlthereby offering better coping mechanism, and see life and suffering from a more positive perspective. Infact this is true not just for the ailing patients but for any normal person.
If we are to compare two patients with the same chronic disease, it may be found that the one who is more spiritual, tend to have a better coping mechanism. They tend to be more positive, happier and content with their lives, have lesser complain of pain and have a better quality of life. Whereas a patient who is not that spiritual tend to get more depressed, irritated, sad, regretful and has much complains about life.
There was a Hindu convert from Assam, who got admitted with pain abdomen. Next to him, in the corner of the ward, was a Naga mother who wasweeping in distress, for her son who was having breathing problem. Seeing the mother weeping, this man from his bed comforted her saying,“Don’t weep sister…Our God is bigger than all these sicknesses. Just trust in Him. He will answer our prayers”.She admitted that the words of this man really boosted her faith and confidence in God and also her hope that her son will be well soon.
Another story is about a Nepali sister from Niuland, Dimapur who was undergoing chemotherapy. Inspite of all the effects of chemo, and all the pain she has to endure, I was challenged and inspired by what she said when I visited her for counseling and prayers. She said, “If Jesus endured all the pain and suffering on the cross for my sin, my pain and suffering here is just nothing. I long for the day to meet my Jesus”.Such strong and positive outlook comes from her deep relationship with God.
Recovery–In my few years of serving in the hospital, I have observed that patients who have a strong faith in God and maintain considerable amount of spirituality, tend to recover much better and faster from various illnesses and surgeries. Their spiritual practices produce renewed hope and positive thinking, and it further enhances one’s recovery.
Mr. X was a teacher, whose femur bone got fractured after falling down from a two-storied building. Initially he was completely hopeless thinking that his legs will be amputated. However, with timely treatment and medication the doctors could save his legs from being amputated, but his recovery was to take some time. During his stay in the hospital for almost 3-4 months, I was constantly visiting him and encouraging him. Eventually he started reading the Bible and prayingmore regularly. He became more and more convinced that God is in control and that God can heal him and make him to walk again. His strong faith and his conviction enabled him to recover much better.
In conclusion, cure is not possible for many illnesses. But there is always room for healing. Healing can be experienced as acceptance of illness and inner peace with one’s life. This healing, I believe, is at its core spiritual. The way we cope with our illnesses and suffering, the way we find meaning and purpose, they way we value life and everything that life offers, the way we address and face various issues of life, it all depends on one’s spirituality. Therefore spirituality indeed plays a major role in healthcare.
[i]Association of American Medical Colleges Report III: Contemporary Issues in Medicine: Communication in Medicine, Medical School Objectives Project. Washington, DC: Association of American Medical Colleges, 1999. pp. 25–26.
[ii] What is Spirituality? https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/what-spirituality (accessed 28 May 2017).
[iii] Online dictionary https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/health%20care (accessed 30May 2017).