”Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown again into instant flame by an encounter with another human being. Each of us owes the deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this inner light.”

— Dr. Albert Schweitzer

When things are going well in our lives, it is easy to assume that all is going to be fine forever. However, when faced by an illness, family problem, financial or job challenge, we must dip into the well of our courage and deepest values. As my patients with cancer tell me, their support in their times of stress are primarily family, friends and their faith community.

This month’s theme will explore some of the vast, infinite dimensions of the human spirit including spirituality, religion, philosophy and even atheism. We will take a particular look at how these relate to medicine and health. Both wellness and illness behaviors are strongly shaped and affected by our belief systems.

Recently, the topic of our Physician Healer Track assignment for third-year medical students was to explore the domains of spirituality and religion related to medicine. The assignment included an essay in which students reflected on their own beliefs and experiences in these areas followed by a lively dinner discussion. Many students and health care providers have deeply held altruistic values that have motivated them to study healing arts.

Religion and spirituality are not easy topics. Less than 20 percent of physicians are comfortable speaking about these with their patients On the other hand, nearly 80 percent of patients surveyed would like to discuss spiritual matters with their doctor. This is especially relevant in the event of major illness and life threatening events.

This mismatch is partially due to the scientific medical paradigm and training health care professionals receive that marginalizes the humanities and all but ignores spiritual dimensions of life. There may also be a fear that sharing faith issues with patients may be seen as proselytizing ones own beliefs.

Whatever the reasons, it has led to a breakdown in support for patients when they most need it. True, hospital chaplains and community ministers are better equipped to deal with such issues than the average physician. However, avoidance of such vital discussions reduces the doctor-patient relationship to a focus on the purely physical dimensions of care.
And while we must be competent practitioners in the physical domain, something is lost in the human connection when the spiritual bond that joins all people is not addressed in the sick room. Some of the best nurses and doctors I have known have found a way to blend skillfully their care of the body with the care of the spirit.

They do not shrink from joining hands and hearts in prayer with patients and families in distress. They have found a way to do this even with those with different religious vantage points than themselves. They have found the beauty of shared humanity, a touch, a word, a gentle gaze, a heart that radiates caring and (dare I say it?) love for their patients.
These are the true healers.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.