As I write this, a friend from my church is going through terrible setbacks as he awaits a new heart. He has been lovingly supported during his lengthy trials by church members. They visit him in the hospital and at home and support his wife with meals as she cares almost around the clock for her husband. His journey into medical care began several years ago when he experienced heart arrhythmias. He underwent at least a half dozen ablations to curtail the stubborn arrhythmias. Finally, his physicians determined that he became a candidate for a heart transplant with his heart failing and arrhythmias only somewhat controlled. He reached #2 on the transplant list before his balloon pump failed, causing a cascade of adverse events that resulted in abdominal infections and pneumonia. Through it all, my friend, through his personal faith, has kept up his hope for a transplant. His support from his faith community has been a great help. David is typical of those seriously ill, older adults whose religious beliefs contribute to their well-being during bouts of hospitalization.
Many years ago, I lost my 19-year-old son to medical care in his college town that was sub-par. I went through a religious upheaval, blaming God for a role in my son’s death. I and many from my church had spoken prayers for his recovery after he collapsed while running. For three days, they poured out their love on my family and me until my son died. One woman asked my wife, “Were our prayers not good enough?” Where was God?
Slowly, I found a pathway to recover my Christian beliefs, albeit not fully consistent with Christian orthodoxy. I used my background as a medical scientist and my new-found identity as a Christian mystic to develop a theology that will support religious people experiencing profound loss or inordinate suffering. My response to my son’s loss was ministering to those who have unexpectedly lost adult children. The causes of death have included erroneously prescribed drugs, spinal cancer, and suicide.
Finally, last year I gathered my thoughts into a small book I call Response Theology: Agape Love Powered by Holy Spirit. I opine that Christianity is about how we respond to the suffering that life hands us. Through our own suffering, we are called to minister to others who may be suffering. It is in that response to the suffering of others that our own suffering is mitigated. I think this model applies to clinicians. Through the suffering brought on by overwork, understaffing, and endless patient needs, clinicians may lean on their spirituality to get them through the “hardest of times” and help their patients who suffer from life-threatening illnesses. The American Medical Association, in its 2018 guide entitled Training Physicians as Healers, has observed that “Spirituality is increasingly recognized as an essential element of patient care and health. It is often during illness that patients experience deep spiritual and existential suffering. With clinicians’ care and compassion, patients can find solace and healing through their spiritual beliefs and values.” Physicians have been offered ways to perform spiritual assessments of their patients to facilitate clinical decision-making when life-altering choices are emerging or when a loved one dies. Yet, evidence suggests that physicians often fall short of meeting patients’ spiritual needs.
In Response Theology: Agape Love Powered by Holy Spirit, I used a seminal quote from Victor Montori, MD, in his book Why We Revolt: A Patient Revolution for Careful and Kind Care. He had held a young woman named Amanda, who was dying of inadequate care when he was a young doctor in Peru. Once the woman died, he asked himself, “Did she feel love?” Perhaps that is the question clinicians should ask themselves as they reflect on their spiritual care of patients.
John T. James is a patient safety advocate.