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Posted: January 07, 2005

Spiritual Caregiving

People or Disease: Dissecting Medicine?s View of You and Me

(Editor?s Note: One of the complaints about healthcare today is that patients are made to feel like diseases to treat rather than people to care for. The first of these articles looks at ways visitors, chaplains, and even healthcare providers can communicate more effectively and empathetically. The second is a survey that finds some surprises about what people in the United States really think of their doctors. )


Hospital Visits: The Best Gifts You Can Bring

During my recent year as a student chaplain in a New York City hospital, I walked into patients? rooms ? and their lives ? when they were more physically, emotionally, and spiritually vulnerable than they had ever been. I sat with Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists, with people who grew up in one faith and now had none to speak of, and with people who proudly claimed to be atheists. They all had questions: ?If God is good, then why am I suffering so much?? ?Where is Jesus now that I need him?? (From a Buddhist): ?If everything is empty, then who am I??

I?m not sure what kind of saint or genius you would need to be to answer those questions. At first, I gamely tried to answer. Eventually I learned a better way.

One evening a patient who read the Bible daily and went to church every Sunday asked me why I thought Jesus was punishing her. I couldn?t think of anything to say. But I knew the feeling. So I asked her, ?What makes you think Jesus is punishing you?? She began telling me the things she believed she had done wrong. I asked her why she thought what she did was so wrong. We went on like this for quite a while, and I left her room believing she was less likely to reproach herself or to believe she was being punished, and more likely to remain open to the enigmatic ways of how God might be involved in her life.

I also realized something: Her questions ? like most patient questions ? were really a way of asking if she could tell me what was troubling her. The kindest thing that I could do was not to try to answer the question ? not to lecture, scold, or judge, or even try to cheer someone up ? but to mirror the question and listen.

When you listen, you offer a package of the most valuable healing gifts you can give: compassion, consolation and forgiveness. The Latin etymology of the word ?religion? means to repair or reconnect, and I?ve realized that it is through our shared unknowing that we find our greatest connection to one another, and to what is sacred.

Not having answers pierces through human pretense and divisions of race, class, education, and even religion. The transcendent ? whatever name we give it ? is just that: transcendent and not entirely knowable. To live with this mystery is to be human, and the more we can each learn how to be human, the more we will treat each other as we would like ourselves to be treated. This is the golden rule we learn as children, forget as adults, and relearn sometime down the road ? if we?re lucky.

-- James Kullander recently received his M.Div. from Union Theological Seminary
He is the publications manager at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York.


Are You a Person or a Disease to Treat?

To find out what we really think of the doctors we lean on, Portrait of America conducted a series of national surveys during 2001. Here?s a sample of the questions and results:

  • Does your doctor view you as a person or as a disease to diagnose and treat? An impressive 72% said ?person.? Fifteen percent said ?disease to treat,? while 13% weren?t sure.

  • Of the following, which is the noblest career: teacher, attorney, doctor, nurse, clergy? Teachers came in first, with 40% Doctors and clergy tied for second at 18% and 17%, respectively. Ten percent of respondents said nursing is noblest, and only 4% went for attorneys.

  • What most motivates doctors to choose their profession? The most popular answer, at 45%, was ?desire to help people.? ?Money? came in a distant second at 29%, and only 10% thought the answer was ?prestige.?

Overall, more than 90% of respondents believe doctors? ethical standards are average or above average while only 7% believe doctors? ethical standards are low or very low.

Not a bad report card.

-- From the Editors of Spirituality & Health

This article originally appeared in Spirituality & Health magazine, For subscriptions call 1-800-876-8202 or see Editor Stephen Kiesling and his staff contribute weekly columns, features and articles published every Friday as "Spiritual Caregiving" at Contact staff directly via email at

© 2005 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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