Over the last year, I have had a major run-in with health care providers. This was not a scheduled event. It just came about after a series of medical issues cascading onto each other. In other words, one thing led to another. I had never really had a contentious relationship with the healthcare industry. In fact, I loved my doctors and was obnoxiously proud that my daughter was a doctor herself. But that may have been because I was never seriously sick and was highly active and healthy. At the end of my year of medical crisis, I recovered from surgery in a world-class major teaching hospital for the third time. This last experience led me to ponder how faith and, most importantly, the clergy had an unrealized role in the medical care of their flock. At first, I thought this was due to my certainty that I was dying and was understandably afraid. But then, when I became more lucid, I began to focus on the real imbalance between modern, high-tech, high-brow medicine and the need to comfort the sick.
I like to think I came up with this need for comfort independently. Still, my time in what is referred to as a community hospital really focused me on the question. We refer to medicine in this country as health care. Still, community hospitals thrive on care, and those big world-class teaching hospitals are all about health as it is scientifically defined. Don't get me wrong, I am blessed to have access to excellent health care. The fact that I can, through insurance, get access to the top hospitals without having to mortgage my home is a gift. However, the iniquility in who gets access to healthcare in this country is for another time. Meantime, it seems that while I was surrounded by the best and the brightest, It did little to nothing to help me feel comfort or nurturing. I had a surgeon with so little bedside manner that he never even checked on me. Instead, I was surrounded by the very top residents and fellows who worked for him. Unfortunately, they had adapted the big guy's manner. Everything was scientific and very formal. When I was exhausted and terrified, I blurted out, "you know, while you are tossing my body around, I want you to know it is my body, and it hurts. My case may be fascinating to you. This case is actually a life that until now had been active and involved in living." I ended my tirade with a note to the "team," "you are young. Get some empathy."
Meanwhile, while I was becoming the talk of the young scientists, I noticed the absence of clergy visits. Apparently, you need to request a visit from the clergy. I had moved to a hospital over an hour away from my parish, so it seemed inconsiderate to ask them to visit. I wasn't even sure I needed a visit. Like many, I associated religious visitation was a sign of impending death. I didn't think I needed extreme unction just yet, although I felt it might be necessary. But the clergy are trained to provide comfort, help alleviate fear and inspire people to overcome. They are trained to speak through their sermons to people they don't know and help them focus on something better than the present situation, to give people faith. I knew an Episcopal priest who led my home parish, the one I grew up in. He was so gifted. He would come and visit my 96-year-old father and just chat with him. Father Nicholl knew my Dad was a doubting Thomas, and offering prayers or the sacrament would not be well received. But my father was sick and depressed because he was in constant pain from arthritis and could feel his mind going. He was ill and in need of care. I always excused myself from these visits, so I am unsure what they discussed. I do know it wasn't a classic prayer circle. Instead, I believe they talked about important things to my Dad. He could complain, and Father Nichole would provide comfort by listening and commiserating with him. He would listen to my father's stories or memories, and both seemed to benefit from the conversations. Afterward, my father would want to get up and walk around the block. He had received genuine care. The second half of health care is the part that gives people the strength to heal.
So I figure we have a chasm between science and care in our health care system. There is no question that our top doctors, including fellows and residents, are the best in the world. There is little doubt that those who graduate from top medical schools and intern at major teaching hospitals are the kind of doctors you want. But once the scientific aspect of healing is passed, what role does care and empathy play? Why is there such a disconnect between performing major life-saving procedures and continuing the healing process through understanding?
As I thought more about this dilemma, I did a little research. I tried to find an Episcopal priest assigned to the big city hospital I was in. Ironically, this became an impossible task, despite the presence on the same campus of one of the Episcopal church's most prominent divinity schools. There was no easy-to-find number you could call to ask for a visit. But, as I mentioned before, I was not convinced I needed the visit. Still, I did want to find out if there were members of the clergy who might be available to my young "team" of residents. Ironically, at my nearby community-based hospital, there was a whole department in the hospital for spiritual care. I was beginning to think that if what ailed you wasn't too far up the scientific scale, you could get medical, scientific excellence, and emotional support and care. If you were like me and required a high-level specialist, you might not find the care you needed to heal completely.
I did a little more digging and found a group of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains. I was excited about that but couldn't find out much about how the church sees the role of healthcare Chaplins. There is a reassuring internet presence, but I was hoping for an inside look at how the church approaches care in the medical arena. What did these chaplains see as their role in ministering, as Christ did, to the sick?
What I really wanted to know was what role healthcare Chaplains feel they might have in training? Could they teach medical professionals to care for their patients as human beings, not just scientific objects? If such a thing exists, I could not uncover it, at least not in a formal program sense. Perhaps in some hospitals, there are training sessions when Chaplains take on the medical teams and help them communicate with their patients in a healing way. But I couldn't uncover them. The only one I knew of was the old New York Medical College, which was once run by the Catholic Church. The school was unique and known for its emphasis on teaching medical students to have respect for their patients and colleagues in a way that is not seen in other similar schools. For example, every year, the school would hold a special mass for the people who had donated their bodies to the school. The families of the departed attended, and the medical students were taught a powerful lesson. Every doctor I have ever met or been seen by who graduated from New York Medical has a special aura about them.
So I can't say for sure there isn't such a program, but I can say for sure that there should be one. A role for hospital chaplains in teaching medical professionals could do wonders. The chaplains could lead the young teams of gifted doctors in training how to read the patient. Like Father Nicholl, they could deliver a healing message without blatant religious trappings. Doctors could see that not only was there pain but also discomfort. The discomfort might come from being alone in a strange place, or a patient simply overwhelmed and unaware of what is happening. I wish I had been cared for by doctors who had a wonderful bedside manner as I went through my long, arduous, and terrifying medical journey. I know the field is too big to make such generalizations, and I want to praise Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners. They are terrific and help bridge the gap. But I can't shake that nagging feeling that as we move to a more secular and scientific world, we may be leaving something behind. Like so much of life today, made remote and isolating through electronics, maybe we overlook the healing touch necessary for proper healthcare.