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Prescription for faith in patient care

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Ronald Ragotzy, M.D.
Ronald Ragotzy, M.D.

For many people, the ending of life, whether it is our own or that of a loved one, is a time when we most turn to faith. In the medical profession, dying is happening all around us. It sometimes takes a few hours, a few days or even a few years. But when the end comes, faith seems to be the best comforter.

If you are like me, you are at least a little uncomfortable with the topic of death. The most important conversations are often delayed until it is far too late. So how do we best help those who are dying to utilize all the faith they possess?

I think that there are two key points to remember in answering this question. First, we should always be willing to share an experience of how faith has worked in our life, and second, we should never explain how faith works. Once we start analyzing how we think our faith works, we invite debate on what faith is rather than see how it is working in our lives. With these two rules, we reassure our residents that their faith will not be criticized or judged, no matter how different their experience may be from our own. When we genuinely share our struggles and the faith that helps us through challenges, we will be amazed at how it aids us. Let me give you an example.

About a month ago, I was talking to the mother of a friend I'll call Bob. Bob's mother had recently seen her son survive a near fatal automobile accident. I told her that if it weren't for faith, I would have driven myself crazy with worry over my own son's situation. I related to her through my experience of being told that my son, 9 months old at the time, had a rare neurologic condition that would likely cause him to have intractable seizures and die. Every twitch that I saw him make while he was sleeping, I interpreted as the beginning of a fatal seizure.

I exhausted myself trying to think and do everything possible to prevent my son from having seizures. I was obsessed with it  making mistakes at work and avoiding the things that I really liked to do in life. I was not only trying everything that I could think of doing for my son, but I was also taking every other person's suggestion about what they thought I should do, too. I was killing myself trying to save my son.

When I was too tired to think anymore, faith arrived in my life and solved my problem. I can't tell you exactly when it happened, but I came to a realization that the worry and guilt had not been bothering me for a while. The feeling that I needed to do everything for my son to prevent seizures was lifted and I was left with a peaceful heart. I enjoyed my son more and I am convinced that my son started enjoying me more too. That was many years ago and this year he is graduating from college with top honors.

That is how I experienced faith with my son's illness, and I have experienced it many times since. If I try to explain the process of faith or listen to others that tell me how faith works, it takes away the true beauty that goes along with the transformation of faith. In fact, as I stated earlier, the more I think and try to control the things in my life, the more I chase away faith and prevent it from helping me. If faith were something that humans could figure out and explain, we would probably spend our time trying to exploit it anyway. Faith is too smart to let us do that.

With the previous discussion in mind, I can finally address how other healthcare practitioners such as myself can best help dying residents utilize all the faith they possess. My answer is that we can share our faith experiences without explaining how we think faith works. Then, give it a day, a week or a month and see if they treat you any differently. Do they light up more when you walk into their room? Do they smile more? Does their family declare how good they look?

On the other hand, residents may act more coldly to you or avoid eye contact. This is not a failure. It probably indicates that you have touched a nerve and that they are having trouble putting it all together. Remain open and approachable, you may be the only one to whom they will open up, about faith, in the future.

I think it would be very beneficial to submit your experiences with patient care and faith to an online forum and see if others have the same or similar results. Remember, don't overanalyze or explain your faith experience, just share it.

Ronald Ragotzy earned his medical degree from Wayne State University in Detroit and has been a practicing physician for 29 years. Ragotzy resides in Janesville, WI. In his free time, he visits and kayaks with family and friends, or travels to see his only son, Declan, at Carroll University. More information about his first book, Raising Abel, can be found by visiting http://www.raisingabelthebook.com.

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