A few weeks before Christmas, Sister Michelle Holland visited Harvard Medical School to learn about promising new treatments for those who are ill.
Sister Michelle works as administrative assistant to the president of Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane. Sacred Heart is the largest and among the most technically advanced medical facilities in the region. When Sacred Heart begins investigating new treatments and procedures, the impact on the lives and health of Inland Northwesterners could be profound.
Sister Michelle listened intently to what she heard at Harvard. The conversations involved neither new drugs nor new surgery. Instead, some of the best minds in modern medicine discussed and debated the potential healing power of faith, prayer and spirituality.
Faith, in fact, may be the wonder drug of the 21st century.
“For much of this century we have dealt more with the pathology (the nature of disease) and not spent nearly enough time thinking about what can be done to keep ourselves healthy,” Sister Michelle said.
Now, insurance companies and health maintenance organizations have become interested in alternatives to expensive drugs, surgery and hospital care. This was the rationale for the Harvard Medical School seminar to explore possible links between spirituality and health.
Herbert Benson, a Harvard professor, was one of the early researchers into possible links between healing and spirituality. Benson’s work has documented, for example, the ability of meditation to reduce blood pressure, oxygen consumption and affect other functions of the body. Over nearly three decades of study, Benson has found those who pray or meditate have less need for health care in the course of their lives.
Other programs at Harvard reviewed fascinating research that suggests third-party prayers for the ill may improve their health and some suggestion that patients whose doctors pray with them have a higher recovery rate.
For Sister Michelle and Sacred Heart Medical Center, using aspects of faith and spirituality in a high-tech medical setting has emerged as a goal for 1996.
Next year, Sacred Heart will convert the former convent for the Sisters of Providence into the Providence Center for Faith and Health. The new center will be both a research site and health facility where staff and patients can further explore the relationship between faith and good health.
“We have come to realize that two things go on at a hospital,” Sister Michelle explained. “One is curing, the other is healing. We have put a lot of our energy at Sacred Heart into clinical curing. We haven’t done as much on healing.”
The Providence Center for Faith and Health will bring a rigorous research and academic focus to the art and science of healing. The effort likely will not be without its anxious critics.
“Some doctors are at home with healing, but others wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole,” Sister Michelle said. “They might call the chaplain, but they wouldn’t think of actually praying with a patient.”
Of course some patients would not want their doctor to pray with them, nor want discussions of faith involved in treatments at all. But many would, Sister Michelle believes. “The cautionary word at Harvard was that if a physician hasn’t talked to a patient enough to know whether faith is important as a value, then the issue shouldn’t be raised. In a sense, you have to be invited in.”
Sister Michelle also knows that at Sacred Heart, and most hospitals, the longing of patients to be healed - even if medical treatments cannot cure them - remains a powerful, underestimated need.
“A person may die, so therefore the hospital did not cure an illness,” Sister Michelle explained. “But the patient might truly be at peace, find the last days to be a growing experience in life. Eventually, we might be able to say that a person has been healed from the fear, or anxiousness, or whatever it is that they feel at the time of that transition.”
The curriculum, research and services to be offered at the new center will begin to take shape over the next few months. “We want to keep it very health-related,” Sister Michelle said. “We think there’s an opportunity to do some important scholarly investigation in this area.”
But it won’t all be academic, she added. “We have put up a lot of bricks and mortar and put down a lot of asphalt around a modern hospital. The center will have a garden with some green space. In my own mind, I can see that garden as a place of therapy for patients facing long surgery, for staff working long hours, for families.”
Sister Michelle knows that neither the garden nor the work done at the Providence Center for Faith and Health will replace clinical medicine.
“We’re not trying to replace that,” she said. “But at Harvard someone said that in the 20th century humankind’s effort was in outer space and in the 21st century it really is going to be on inner space. That is what we are going to try to do.”
There could be no better time to consider this possibility and potential than Christmas.