Can prayer heal the sick?

Faith and reason entered my medical universe recently.

A patient underwent surgery to resect a colon cancer. The tumor had metastasized to the lymph nodes, an unfavorable prognostic event. The surgeon entered the room and advised the patient that her survival is likely limited to 1-2 years. The patient and her husband were devastated. The distraught husband spent the next 24 hours sobbing in a painful and despondent state. He related the tragic news to his 3 children, ages 3, 5 and 8.

Was this the appropriate time for the physician to relay such ominous news to a patient and family?

Was it prudent for the overcome husband to share this traumatic news with his 3 young children?

Reader responses to the above two inquiries may be influenced by knowing that the long term survival of colon cancer that has spread to the lymph nodes is 50%, which varies substantially from the physician’s doomsay scenario.

The patient, while still recovering from surgery in the hospital, experienced a healing experience that she will remember until the end of her days. Her 3-year-old daughter approached her and told her that she is not going to die because God told the young child that her mother will live. The patient related that she felt an unusual sensation that began at the top of her head and rippled slowly down her body until it reached the soles of her feet.

The woman received no chemotherapy or any other treatments to the tumor.

So, whom do you believe, a trained medical professional or a 3-year-old child?

Since this surgery occurred in 1985, and the woman is thriving and well today, it is clear which of these two were correct.

The patient is convinced that she was divinely healed and this experience has understandably deepened her Christian faith.

I am not a Christian but I have enough humility to know how limited physicians like me are about the art and science of healing. Faith and reason can coexist. Is there truly a will to live? Can prayer heal the sick? Men of hard science also pray to God. Is this a dichotomy or a fusion?

Every physician has seen patients recover whom we were certain would succumb. Does science have all the answers? Does faith?

I do not offer this woman’s anecdote as proof of divine healing, although her young child’s bedside pronouncement seems providential. There are many medical cases that carve a course that I would not have predicted and do not understand. What forces may be at play there? I can’t say for sure, but I know many believe that prayer may be more powerful than our most potent prescriptions. When you’re staring down a miracle, is that the time to diss the Divine One?

Will traditional medicine enter the new age universe?  Will the gates of reason welcome faith?

Michael Kirsch is a gastroenterologist who blogs at MD Whistleblower.

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  • RenegadeRN

    Love that story! Yes, I absolutely believe there is room in medicine for faith. I have experienced it personally with a home health patient years ago.
    Still moves me to this day when I think of it.

  • Ashwani Baghel

    This story says a lot that quantum mechanics at the very atomic level is still at work.The mind body connection that we talk about is a very strong point which says a lot about the healing.It’s an amazing example of how faith and positive emotions along with modern medical science can actually do something so miraculous,considering the fact that it was very clear that the lymph node metastasis was saying it all loudly about the outcome.Maybe it’s a boon to keep aside all the facts and figures for a while and see a disease beyond it’s outcome.

    • Brian P. Curry

      Oh, please, PLEASE, don’t invoke quantum mechanics like this. It’s an insult to people who actually understand it.

  • Wy Woods Harris

    Thanks for taking the time to write this story that I will share because I am a believer and a receiver of the effects of prayer to soul, self and spirit!

  • Gaspere (Gus) Geraci

    There is much we don’t know about healing. Invoking a deity makes it easier to explain. There is neither proof nor disproof here. Believing is a choice to have faith, not believing is not accepting that same faith.

  • A_Surgeon

    For every genuinely mystical and inexplicable story like this one, there are a hundred where the ‘disease’ was a mixture of a marginal physical abnormality and a humongous psychosocial problem that has been medicalised.

    The sufferer has prayer/laying on of hands etc. and is miraculously cured. This is then proof God exists. Affirmation of faith depends so much on healing of ‘diseases’ that it puts doctors in a real spot. I hated members of the congregation seeking me out for medical advice when I could see the problem was psychosocial. And feeling bad because I could not agree a ‘miracle’ had just taken place in our charismatic, evangelical church.

    In fact, the ability of humans to delude themselves over illness, healing and the whole health bit caused me to believe faith is probably a delusion too. That and reading ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins. The book merely logically set out what I had been sub-consciously thinking for years but had suppressed. There is no going back, or at least it will take A LOT to make me change my mind again.

  • Carol Beckerman

    Interesting how polarizing this subject is among the medical community. The quantum model of our physical world (and as used in quantum medicine) provides a bridge between science and spirituality that physicians might find easier to understand than a strictly religious explanation. Nonetheless, all because an MD can’t explain it, doesn’t make the patient delusional or the original diagnosis any less real.

  • drjoekosterich

    The fact that we cannot explain things that happen does not mean they do not happen. Th universe is bigger than modern medicine.

  • querywoman

    I believe in prayer, but with limitations. Most prayers don’t result in healing. People in wheelchairs are especially vulnerable to the faith healers. They are seen as failures when they don’t rise up and walk.
    FYI, Jesus Christ never regenerated limbs.
    My mother always believed that the prayers in her church helped her quit smoking.
    Once I was sitting in large public hospital prescription area, waiting for some medicines. I saw two women doing faith healing in the lobby, raising hands, praising God, etc. I thought, “What are they doing here waiting for medicine?”
    I once attended a large urban Protestant church with many doctors. To say that prayer can heal everything (it can’t), would negative the skills God gave those doctors.
    The voice of God is often considered “the small quiet voice within,” and I think this concept is in the Jewish scriptures also.
    Most of us know the truth in our own souls.
    That 3 year old child experienced a truth that many of us experience.
    I have no medical training, but I know when death is imminent. I get that feeling.

    Earlier this year, I visited a non-religious Jewish friend in the hospital, an elderly man who had refused prostate cancer treatment. I was with his long-time lady friend. The doctors had told her death might be in four weeks or a few months.
    I had a sensation while I was there, something I sensed behind his shoulders and then rising above and behind him. I knew he would die in a couple of days. He died the next day.

    He lived three days after she put him in the hospital.
    Perhaps, in Christian terms, it was his guardian angel warning me. It couldn’t have been his soul transgressing, because he was still alive.
    He always swore he was atheist or agnostic, though we had trouble believing that.
    In his apartment, we found some Christian literature and some Jewish literature.

  • querywoman

    Michael, I suggest you read what James Randi has to say about faith healing. He is a rather nasty negative man, but what he is seen is not pretty.
    I also suggest that you read Paramahansa Yogandanda’s, “Autobiograpy of a Yogi.” He talks about faith healing as a Hindu, and discuss the healings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth. What fascinates me is that Yogananda mentions that Jesus told the people he healed not to talk about to others (of course, they did,) and healing yogis say the same thing about keeping it quiet.
    There may some natural mental laws of healing.
    Modern witchcraft associates itself with healing, but that’s a subject I don’t research.
    I believe that whatever healing that comes through your hands is surgeries comes from a divine source.
    It is also a form of prayer when you prescribe a medicine or do a surgery and hope that it works. You know it doesn’t always work.