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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.

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((Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photos Shutterstock)

Fifteen years ago, my husband came home from the daf yomi Talmud lecture he attended every day and proclaimed: “All good doctors go to hell.”

As a holistic doctor —and, I thought, a good one—I was taken aback. “Why would good doctors go to hell?” I asked. Brought up in a secular Jewish home, I had always believed in a rational, scientific world where doctors were treated with a certain respect or even awe. I had only become observant a few months before my marriage to Ethan, who’d been raised in a religious home. I wondered if this belief about doctors was common wisdom among observant Jews.

Seeming to relish my surprise, Ethan eagerly explained, “The good doctors go to hell because they don’t pray for their patients. They believe they’re doing the healing.” He waited for his words to sink in before asking, “And what about you?”

The question has stayed with me ever since. I took his point to heart and decided, after some reflection, to try bringing prayer into my medical practice. It didn’t come naturally. At first, the idea of praying for anyone reminded me of my religious Christian friends, who were always offering to pray for me—which I found vaguely annoying. But then my aunt became ill and slipped into a coma. I remembered seeing my mother-in-law praying for people by name when she lit her Shabbos candles, so I decided to give it a whirl. After six weeks, my aunt recovered.

That convinced me. Ever since, I’ve prayed for my patients every day.

***

Growing up as a secular Jew, I had never put much stock in the power of spirituality until I took a trip to England in 1989 and stayed with my brother’s wife’s cousin, Aubrey Rose, who introduced me to a family secret: Aubrey and his wife claimed to have communicated repeatedly and reliably with their dead son David through a medium. I was so impressed with this new insight that I vowed to explore the hidden spiritual side of things—in general, and in a Jewish context. I started attending a Conservative egalitarian synagogue and, when that didn’t satisfy (religion ended at the shul door), moved on to an Orthodox one.

Around the same time, my professional life as an M.D. was also shaken up. I was working at a small, not-for-profit clinic that offered alternative services like acupuncture and biofeedback. To fulfill my continuing medical education requirement, I attended a seminar in nutritional medicine at The Omega Center, a former Yiddish summer camp in Rhinebeck, New York, now serving as a retreat for holistic studies. But before settling into my assigned course, I first sat in on classes on qi gong, yoga, and mindfulness. When I returned to the clinic, I began to put my new spiritually informed medical training into practice, eventually leaving that office to open one of my own.

It was also around this time that I, a newly observant Jew, was introduced to and married Ethan.

When Ethan later made his big pronouncement about “good doctors,” I had already been praying for five or six years and practicing holistic medicine for nine or 10—but I hadn’t thought about how the two might fit together. Mixing prayer with medicine can be awkward. It’s one thing to daven privately, but to introduce prayer into the doctor-patient relationship crosses a line, almost like breaching the separation of church and state. What right do I have to speak to a patient about God? What if he is an atheist?

I had read of studies showing that prayer promotes healing, but it wasn’t until my aunt’s miraculous recovery that I began to consider prayer on a more personal level. Something shifted inside me. I had moved from being someone who felt uncomfortable praying for anyone to someone who felt a desire, even an obligation, to put in a good word for those who suffered. As I sat at my kitchen table each morning, I would add the names of ailing people to my prayers. I started with my parents and elderly relatives, then added the names of people I’d heard about in the community, and finally, tacked on “and all my patients,” at the end of the list. I was determined not to be one of those “good doctors” who didn’t pray for her patients.

The first time I prayed for a specific patient was when a woman with ovarian cancer gave me her Hebrew name and asked me to pray for her. I added her name to my list. Later, when another Jewish patient was diagnosed with uterine cancer, it seemed appropriate that I inquire after her Hebrew name. Although not religious, she readily told me her name, Nechama, but she had to email me later with her mother’s name, which she gave as Laura. In both these cases, I was not actively treating the patients for their life-threatening condition; as a holistic physician, the conditions my patients see me to treat are rarely life-threatening.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that praying draws me closer to God, and it also brings me closer to my patients. If I prayed for a patient in the morning and she walks in during the afternoon, I feel a special connection, like seeing a long lost friend. I think this works both ways, like the patient who regularly calls me and begins by saying, “Hey, Doc, it’s me, Miriam bas Esther.” She knows I’m praying for her.

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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You can stop praying now in order to heal your patients. That’s not how prayer works. Besides, much better to research their illness.

AuntySemantic says:

Amen.

Oh yes it is how prayer works! I am grateful to have the precious privilege and confidence to pray for my family very specifically. Our prayers for healing matter, and I applaud Dr Ordene’s courage to pray, to publish this post and to endure opposition.

L Alpert says:

I am shocked that the Rabbi advised you to stop praying for your patient, even if she sued you. She is still a human being with an illness and in need of support, maybe now more than ever.

And what it your aunt had died? Would you have assumed God wasn’t listening to your prayers? That God wasn’t on “your side”? Would you have continued to pray for your patients if the outcomes weren’t what you wanted? It doesn’t sound like you were praying for wisdom and guidance; it sounds like you used prayer to achieve your own self-centered wishes…

It’s understandable that some patients and doctors confronted by the uncertainty of a serious diagnosis would like to be soothed by alternative treatments and prayer. For myself, I favor doctors who are committed to rigorous, scientific, evidence-based medical practice. The thought of my doctor praying for my health without my knowledge or consent — regardless of good intentions or shared religious beliefs — is alarming.

bykrieger1@comcast.net says:

I should have mentioned, Dr. Benjamin Parker also went to shul to daven for my healthy performance.

Hershl says:

I pray for patients regularly but always ask their permission. So far no one has said, No.

And, yes, those I pray for are helped. Many will tell me later exactly when they felt the effect.

The prayer is not for a recovery.

The prayer is to simply know with all that I Am, that they are pure spirit and that spirit cannot be harmed in any way.

There is a level on which nothing is wrong with them and, by accessing that level, wonderful things happen.

I’m appreciative both for the article and for the “other” perspective of some of your readers. We do go to doctors because of their medical training. If we believed, like certain churches do, we should let the Almighty do the doctoring, then we would go to our rabbis instead. As a doctor, you are aware that it’s your skill that brings you patients. As a patient we want to believe that you are confident of your own skill. Even so, there is no harm at all to my mind in knowing that my doctor is also asking God to root for me. My friends and neighbors of all faiths and relatives do it, and I appreciate it. The v’ahavta teaches us that all of us should have God in mind, from dawn to dusk, as we work and as we walk and as we talk with our children. Doctors are no different in this regard from anyone else. Even so, I will say that I think your husband Ethan’s perspective is harsh. Most doctors I’ve met do not think they are gods. They are not arrogant in that way. Through the course of their practices, they’ve suffered patient deaths and other unsatisfactory patient outcomes and realize just how little power they actually have. They are simply very skilled medical mechanics of a most important sort.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that praying draws me closer to God, and it also brings me closer to my patients. If I prayed for a patient in the morning and she walks in during the afternoon, I feel a special connection, like seeing a long lost friend. I think this works both ways, like the patient who regularly calls me and begins by saying, “Hey, Doc, it’s me, Miriam bas Esther.” She knows I’m praying for her.

That’s beautiful!

I worked for many years to open up the extra senses we all have, but are latent in many people, such as my third eye. I grew up in a secular Jewish home and wasn’t familiar with prayer. One day, I was consulting someone about my work problems. She suggested I say a prayer before I went to work. Since I hadn’t any idea how to do that, she wrote one out for me.

In the morning, I put the prayer on the dresser and stood there reading it with kavanah. While I was reading it, I happened to see myself in the mirror. In the place where my head and face usually were, was a ball of streaming, flowing energy. From that moment on, I became convinced that prayer is something real.

Every day now I say the Hebrew prayer for healing and mention the names of people who are ill and who have given me permission to pray for them. I also incorporate English prayers at the beginning of my meditation which follows. When a friend, against all odds, recovered from cancer surgery, she thanked me. I didn’t know how to respond because I have no idea if my prayers had any effect on the result. For me it’s simply an attempt to be of service.

Like the doctor wrote, a special connection seems to be formed when you pray for someone. I notice it especially when it’s someone I don’t particularly like. I would be thrilled to go to a doctor who took the time out of his/her private life to say a prayer for my health.

Rebecca K. says:

A doctor who prays does not preclude a doctor who offers top-notch care. I once had a complication for surgery. When it finally cleared up, my doctor (Jewish, but not Orthodox to my knowledge) told me that he’d been by praying for my full recovery in the past weeks. I felt loved and cared for. I hadn’t been a statistic or an insurance claim to him. I had been a person. And I was impressed that even though he was following all the rigorously-tested, scientific strategies to help me, and had a great reputation among his clients and colleagues, he didn’t think he was the master of my destiny.

For those of us who believe in G-d and Jesus Christ, is important to maintain our closeness via prayer. Praying for our patients allow us not only to request guidance and help, but also opens our minds and hearts to improve ourselves in the art of healing. The fact that a doctor or any other medical practitioner prays for their patient, does not mean that he/she is not committed to rigorous, scientific, evidence-based medical practice like Eli seems to believe. One does not exclude the other. Blessings to all!

azy thos says:

If your doctor prays, it means that he believes in supernatural beings. If he has that kind of a belief, he can’t be relied upon to practice medicine based on scientific evidence, as he accepts the things he believes without evidence. You may be wise to choose a believing curate or even a believing rabbi, but if you want to heal stick to non-believing doctors.

I agree with your first sentence, and I’m glad that your doctor’s prayers were meaningful to you. But not everyone would feel that way, which is why I consider it disrespectful for a doctor to run the risk of violating a patient’s wishes by praying for them without their knowledge. And a doctor who thinks that this is acceptable reasoning:

“But then my aunt became ill and slipped into a coma. I remembered seeing my mother-in-law praying for people by name when she lit her Shabbos candles, so I decided to give it a whirl. After six weeks, my aunt recovered.

That convinced me. Ever since, I’ve prayed for my patients every day.”

does not inspire confidence in their ability to critically evaluate effective treatments.

Rebecca K. says:

“If he has that kind of a belief, he can’t be relied upon to practice medicine based on scientific evidence, as he accepts the things he believes without evidence.”

Many people who believe in G-d feel they do so because of evidence. Whether you find the evidence convincing or not, they do. And, frankly, there is no empirical evidence for the lack of a G-d.

Paul M says:

I prayed for my patients regularly when I was in practice. I did it discreetly and sometimes when appropriate and desired I did it with my patients and their families. Whether or not this impacted the ultimate clinical outcome, I have no idea, but it certainly contributed to the healing that took place.

Inscribed over the entrance to Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital on 168th Street (now New York Presbyterian) is the following quote: “For of the most high cometh healing”. I loved walking under that quote and it made me feel that healing was not from me but through me. However, I was astounded to learn that many of my colleagues believed that the “most high” referred to themselves, personally. I suppose this is part of the arrogance that afflicts the professional medical community.

The advice to stop praying for a patient is terribly misguided and runs counter to the essence of what a physician should be – a healer.

Robert Gross says:

Healing, as well as everything else, comes from the Most High. The spiritual malady of “ego run riot” afflicts the medical fraternity widely (female physicians are less impaired for a variety of reasons).

Evidence of the efficacy of spiritual healing exists. There are none so blind as those who will not see. It could also be pointed out that among the top ten causes of death in America are iatrogenic and nosocomial illness, those caused by doctors and hospitals.

Finally, the explicit and implied pejorative “supernatural” is emblematic of the tragic split between science and religion/the humanities. The good news is that the split is finally beginning to heal. More or less five hundred years ago the “natural philosophers” who invented science during the Age of Reason ran into the wrath of the then all-powerful Roman Catholic Church for daring to question the authority of their pronouncements. To preserve their freedom, even their very lives, these proto-scientists were forced to say, in effect, “OK, we will study and try to analyze what we can measure or quantify. Questions of meaning and purpose we leave to the Church.” There it remained, gradually hardening into dogma and “scientism” until only April, 2012. The epoch shattering event that took place then went almost entirely unnoticed. The American Society of Addiction Medicine, Very Serious People with lots of the requisite initials after their names, redefined the illness of Addiction. It has been well established for decades that the etiology of this illness, as nearly as can be established, is biological, psychological, and social in nature, dissenting theories aside. The big news is that for the first time in five hundred years a mainstream scientific medical organization has added Spiritual to the previous definition. This in deference to the success of Alcoholics Anonymous and the many daughter fellowships for their limited but undeniable improvement in the lives of millions. Only substitute “meaning and purpose” for the tainted term “spirituality” and there is no longer any conflict with science. There is an entirely new and important field of inquiry, but that is a different conversation.

Uncle Albert Einstein observed that religion without science is blind, but science without religion is lame.” We may pray that this lameness will soon be healed.

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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.

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