Re-defining role of soulfulness in 21st century medicine
Dr Liaqat Ali
A famous quote goes to say; hospital walls have heard more prayers than church altars. One wonders if these houses of healing we call hospitals may actually be more than just that. Could it be that the most sacred places then are hospitals? It is where life takes birth and breathes its last all the same. What can be more profound, more heartfelt and more stunningly awe-incurring than this feeling of being health care provider. Stunning even, the realization that doctors at their best may as well be the best creatures on this planet spending each minute in service and witnessing the Divine in ailing humans every day.
One of the most striking manifestations of spirituality in clinical practice has been seen in the cases of primary infertility. When no cause explains your pathology – desperation overpowers hope, when hopes are pined on prayers more than drugs, medicine or modern diagnostics – it’s like waiting for Gabriel, and when the sheer hope to live and the unwavering faith in the power of God drive the patient. This practice is too rampant to be ignored and it is only logical that if your patient is so keen on a belief, as a doctor you align your thought process around it too. Through the course of clinical practice, we come across myriad stories when medicine fails but faith wins.
From announcing untreatable diseases to breaking news of non-resectable tumours, from telling our patient that he/she has few more months of viability or letting them know they are paralyzed for good-bad news comes as a thunderbolt for our patients. The question of their survival is of utmost significance to us – doctors, and it is incumbent to ponder what that helps them survive long after we have left the bedside. When all interventions and guidelines seem to fail, what keeps our frail ailing patients going? It is the Soul that strengthens the faith in gloomy course of illness.
This phenomenon of spirituality and medicine has been elegantly described by 17th century great mystical saint, Syed Mir Anwar Shah Buzargawar in his poetry and text. His text has provided the frame work for understanding difference in illness, disease, treatment and cure.
Across the world there is a plethora of discussion about patient care and how to improve it, but very little on patient’s ‘healing’. Are these different phenomena or different faces of the same? We won’t know unless we have dug deep into the understanding of the super-physical phenomena. The processes and changes we don’t realize physically with our five senses, but very well feel the magnanimity of.
It is a question of seeking the greater meaning of true healing and not only the organic phenomenon of cause and effect. Our patients, as we know them, are no more than guinea pigs of the ‘Homo sapiens’ variety to us, who we deem as pieces of the big medicine puzzle. There is a human side of our patients we often tend to ignore. How every patient responds to set treatment guidelines is different. Have we ever pondered why that may be? How their behaviours, psychology, religious and spiritual inclinations and even social interactions have such a profound effect on their response to medicine. It is about time that the paradigm of treatment shifted towards spirituality, psychology and the knowledge of abstract manifesting as physical. It is the time to fall back from cure-oriented model to care-oriented model.
The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said: “Man is not destroyed by suffering; he is destroyed by suffering without meaning.” He wrote his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. Helping people find purpose and acceptance in the midst of hardship and chronic sickness is one of the problems that doctors encounter. Medical ethicists have reminded us that for many people, religion and spirituality are the foundation of meaning and purpose. In addition to physical agony caused by their illness, patients also experience pain from mental and spiritual suffering as well as from being unable to address the most important problems in life. Patients might enquire about things like the following: Why is this occurring to me right now? How will my family get by once I die? Will I be missed? Will I ever be forgotten? Answers to these questions are necessary for real healing. Many diseases have no known cure, yet there is always room for healing.
Accepting one’s illness and finding peace with one’s life are two ways to achieve healing. It becomes evidently clear that healing is fundamentally spiritual. We have seen it time and again in the Muslim tradition of Surah Al-Rahman’s recording being played at ICU both nationally and internationally with evident observable benefits to the health parameters of the patients. The effects of mere listening to Surah Al-Rahman are not placebo effects. We have seen these miracles if increasing immunogenic cells transforming the immunity and apoptosis in favour of patient. It is because of the mystical properties of Al-Rahman, are so profound and generalized that his blessing is equally distributed in nature irrespective of belief and religiosity.
The more tangible physical characteristics of patients and their care have dominated medical education in the West. Although it is not a usual component of medical school or college curricula, evidence is mounting that our patients want and expect us to address the spiritual components of medical care as part of the care we offer. Patients nevertheless remain human beings with complex needs when they contact with doctors and other healthcare professionals. In fact, a patient’s awareness of life, death and other spiritual issues may loom larger than usual during times of illness, crisis, or transition. Understanding patients’ spiritual needs may be viewed as a crucial component of the patient-centred approach, which is widely regarded as being essential for providing patients with high-quality care.
The writer is a senior urologist, academician, researcher and medical educationist. Currently, he is working as a professor at the Department of Urology, Institute of Kidney Diseases (IKD), Hayatabad Medical Complex/Khyber Girls Medical College, Peshawar. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.