Whenever he meets with a new patient, Harvey Chochinov likes to ask one important question: “What should I know about you as a person to help me take the best care of you that I can?”
It’s a question every doctor should ask, says Chochinov, author of Dignity Therapy and director of the Manitoba Palliative Care Research Unit; a question he has found helps patient and doctor alike dial in to their innate spirituality, and in so doing, promote better health.
Even if spirituality is a word the patient is not accustomed to using or a subject the physician is averse to addressing, it doesn’t make it any less relevant. Defined by the American Academy of Family Physicians as “the way you find meaning, hope, comfort and inner peace in your life,” spirituality is something that concerns all of us, and cannot be — must not be — easily dismissed.
The good news is that, increasingly, doctors, nurses and other health care professionals are beginning to recognize the unique role they have to play in addressing the complexities of their patients’ lives, their fears, even their capacity to maintain a sense of connection with the divine during times of crisis. Although tending to such spiritual needs has long been considered the exclusive domain of chaplains and clergy, studies confirm that there is both the demand and the opportunity for this responsibility to be shared in some degree by everyone involved with the day-to-day care of patients.
I found this to be true many years ago when, as a teenager, I found myself lying in a hospital bed recovering from a number of injuries following a serious accident, including two broken legs, a broken hand, various internal injuries, and extensive cuts and bruises to my face. At the moment, however, the biggest challenge confronting me was whether or not to go ahead with what one of my doctors considered an immediate need for surgery to repair a shattered pelvis.
After consulting with my parents, I asked if I could be given the rest of the afternoon and evening to think things through. My doctor agreed and said that he would still plan on coming by in the morning to prep for an operation.
Although on the surface this seemed like a fairly unremarkable exchange between doctor and patient, what was left unsaid between the two of us was just as important as what was.
You see, during the previous three weeks, the hospital staff taking care of me had observed not only a pretty rapid recovery from what were considered life-altering if not life-threatening injuries, but also a patient — and a patient’s family — relying wholeheartedly on prayer for healing. And with good results.
On one occasion during an operation to repair what was diagnosed as severe internal bleeding, the doctors ended up finding nothing wrong. As one of the members of the surgical team put it, “Someone must have gotten in there before us.” And within a relatively short time, every scratch and scar on my face had healed over without any medical intervention.
So, what my doctor didn’t say when I asked for some time before going ahead with the recommended surgery, but which I undoubtedly sensed, was that he trusted me to make the right decision in terms of my health.
The next morning, new x-rays were taken which showed dramatic improvement. Instead of carting me off to the operating room, plans were made for me to complete my recovery at home.
I don’t recall this doctor or anyone else in the hospital for that matter ever asking me if there was anything they needed to know about me as a person in order to help them take good care of me. I think in my case it was more intuition. The important thing is that they both respected and were responsive to my spiritual needs.
In the end, I would like to think it wasn’t just me but those taking care of me as well that benefited from this experience, and that together we gained that much more appreciation for what can happen when we honor the spirituality of others.
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