Praying for My Patients
As a doctor, I know there’s a power higher than me. That’s why I pray every day for the people I’m treating.
There was one patient, though, I couldn’t help. She was suffering from terrible anxiety—so much so that she was too anxious to try any of my treatments. This patient I prayed for. I never told her, just added her name to my list. Sadly, the one treatment she wanted was estrogen, and when she later developed breast cancer, she became convinced that it was the estrogen I prescribed that caused her cancer. She decided to sue me.
Now I faced a conundrum: Should I still pray for her or drop her from my prayers like a hot potato? I decided to wait for Shabbos and ask my brother-in-law, who is a rabbi. Upon hearing my story, his answer came swiftly: “You can tell her to go to Hartford, Hereford, and Hampshire! Do not pray for her; and if she ever wants to come back, do not see her!” I dropped the potato. If the Almighty wants to heal her, I figured, he will—with or without my prayers.
I’d love to report all my successes with prayer, but unfortunately I’m not aware of any. Some patients—including the woman with ovarian cancer, an elderly gentleman with urinary retention, and an octogenarian with Alzheimer’s—are doing reasonably well, but I can’t say it’s because of my prayers. The patient with uterine cancer passed away. But in fact, it’s the very nature of prayer that we don’t always get what we ask for. That doesn’t mean our prayers aren’t answered; they are, just not in the way we expect. Still, no matter what the outcome, I know patients take comfort in having someone pray for them.
Offering to pray for a patient can feel like an admission of powerlessness. After all, patients come to doctors for answers. A physician is an authority figure. To turn around and say I need to speak to a higher authority could be seen as a sign of weakness, ignorance, or at the very least, lack of confidence. But that strikes at the heart of the Gemara—“Tov she’berofim leGehinnom— the best of doctors are destined to go to Gehinnom [hell].” I’ve researched this Gemara and discovered its real meaning. It’s not as I originally thought, that doctors who don’t pray for their patients go to Gehinnom. Rather, it’s doctors who don’t feel a need to ask anyone else, neither other doctors nor the Creator, so confident are they in their own abilities—they are the ones who go to hell. Some commentators say that these “good” doctors either omit the refa’einu blessing—the prayer for healing—in the Shemoneh Esrei or else say it without intent.
I will never have that kind of confidence. I enjoy consulting with other doctors and attend medical conferences to keep up-to-date. There I listen to the authorities, leaders in my field. Attendees sit in rows with their laptops open, taking notes. After each series of lectures, there is an “ask the experts” session with the presenters. No one talks about God, no one mentions prayer. But I for one am thinking of him. I bet some of these other doctors, these experts, are doing the same—and I bet some of them also pray for their patients.
Every morning, when I daven, I come back to the refa’einu blessing. I recite my list: Miriam bas Esther, another few patients, a sick relative, a few friends, and then “all my patients.” In praying for my patients, I’m speaking directly to the Creator, making him a partner in my medical practice. It’s not that I don’t trust my skills as a doctor; I do, but I also know that there’s a power higher than me. I’m not one of those “good” doctors who know it all. I really need his help, and that’s why I pray.
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