Faith in medicine
Ronald Ragotzy, M.D.
When I went into medicine, I had no idea how much I would learn about faith. The first time I felt faith, believe it or not, was in a nursing home. No, it wasn't while visiting a dying loved one and it wasn't a burning bush type of experience. In fact, I didn't even know I was feeling faith until many years later. At that nursing home, I first felt faith while working as a nurse's aide with a “peaceful heart.”
Isn't it amazing how little we think about faith, and that not until our lives seem unfixable do we cry out to faith for a peaceful heart? We expect faith to help us in our time of need and then to be on quiet standby while we go on living the rest of our lives.
With this kind of relationship to faith, it is hard to believe that we would even recognize true faith if it were right in front of us. Being in the medical field, it is even harder to recognize faith because we often develop a callous attitude to death and disease. But there is a way for those of us in the medical arena to keep our faith whole and present. It begins by treating patients with a peaceful heart. Our serenity in dealing with a situation helps them know that they are not alone, and even if there is no ultimate cure, we will help them through it. By doing this we not only help the process, we get to see faith in action. Treating the physical ailment with serenity helps take the care to the “faith level.”
Let me give you an example.
During summer vacations while in college and medical school, I was expected to work to help pay for my tuition. A few summers I worked at a nursing home as an aide on the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift. The first summer I took care of a man named John. He was gruff and surly and had one consistent problem, diarrhea. Every night we had our bathroom routine, I would clean him up from top to bottom, mainly bottom, and put him to bed. As you can imagine, he had some tender areas and had a tendency to swear when he was in pain. When he was finally in bed and I had said “good night” he would muster up the best smile he could and slightly raise his right hand. That was our routine and I never once considered it a chore. I guess it would have been easy to grumble back to John or to even pity him, as he swore up a blue streak, but I had no desire to do either. I just did my job with a peaceful heart and somehow I know John was aware of that too. The following summer when I returned to the nursing home I headed straight for John's room, but the nurse, knowingly, caught me and told me that John had passed away soon after I left last summer.
It was many years later when I recalled those summers that I realized that faith had been active in my life even if I didn't know it at the time. Because I had helped John with a peaceful heart, I was open to the idea that something bigger than just a nightly routine may have been happening between us, something that neither of us knew at the time. I had the honor of helping him to have a better last summer on earth and he was teaching me what faith was really all about.
Faith allowed me to help John in a way that, at the time, I knew nothing about. The feeling of faith may not have been immediate, but it certainly came later when I looked for it. What an extraordinary gift that John gave me by teaching me how to see faith in the real world, and not when it is just used as a last resort rescue. Furthermore, I know that if I had had an attitude that my nursing home job was just something that I had to endure to pay my tuition, John would not have had a very pleasant last summer on earth and I would not have allowed him to teach me about faith.
By reviewing my past and seeing these small visions of faith it makes it so much easier for me to have faith and a peaceful heart in my work and my life today. To me, faith is simply finding your peaceful heart and bringing it to everything you do, big or small, fun or boring and even voluntary or professional.
Ronald Ragotzy, M.D., is a physician who lives in Janesville, WI. He is the author of Raising Abel.