Science looks to the soul

Hospital dedicates chapel with nod to power of faith

May 19, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

A hospital is commonly considered a sanctuary of science, where advances in technology and medicine combine to alleviate human suffering.

But all that is incomplete, says Dr. Dale Matthews, who teaches at Georgetown University Medical School, without the science of the soul.

Matthews, a Washington internist who is a nationally recognized authority on the relationship between faith and healing, was in Baltimore yesterday to help dedicate a new ecumenical chapel at Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson.

The redesigned chapel, which is prominently located at the hospital's entrance, is an integral part of the mission of the Spiritual Support Services team of chaplains to promote healing of body through healing of spirit. GBMC Chaplain J. Joseph Hart said he decided to push for renovation of the chapel when he heard about a cancer patient, in a wheelchair with IVs connected, who could not enter the chapel to pray.

"She was unable to gain entry because of the narrow width of the chapel doors," Hart told those at the dedication ceremony. "It was reported to me that she left frustrated, unable to pray."

While chaplains have long been an important spiritual presence in hospitals, the medical community in recent years is beginning to recognize what many believe is an integral link between faith and healing. But Matthews, a devout Presbyterian who two years ago wrote "The Faith Factor: Proof of the Healing Power of Prayer," contends the linkage dates from the earliest practice of the medical sciences.

On the Mediterranean island of Kos, where Hippocrates operated history's first medical school, there was also a temple dedicated to the god of healing, Asklepios. "Patients had a choice," Matthews said with a chuckle. "They could listen to Hippocrates, or they could get a second opinion and go to the temple of Asklepios."

His point? "This relationship between medicine and religion goes back to the beginning," Matthews said.

His two decades of medical practice have convinced Matthews, the grandson of a missionary and the son of a doctor, "that people who pray, who read Scripture, who attend worship, have longer lives and a higher quality of life."

Many studies have been published in recent years to back up those claims. At the same time, there is a backlash. In an article published last year in The Lancet, a respected British medical journal, three American medical researchers said such studies failed to account for the effect of such variables as age, sex, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. For example, many religious people make lifestyle choices that prohibit such activities as smoking, drinking, drug use, risky sexual behavior or abstinence from meat.

But Matthews tells a story of one of his patients about whom he was concerned. After listening to her talk about how much she loved golf and wanted to feel better so she could play more, he suggested she lose a few pounds. The next time he saw her, his patient had lost 15 pounds.

He asked her how she did what so many of his other patients could not.

"She broke down and cried and said, `Because you cared about me,' " he said. "The most important things we do in medicine are to care and to listen. Medicine of the 21st century will involve listening, not only to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope, but with the third ear: to the spiritual concerns of the patient."

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