Rising from My Wheelchair: Judaism and the Mystery of Healing.
There’s something intangible to medicine that, like prayer, is still very real and incredibly powerful.
I don’t know what to say to the woman dying of cancer. She claims she isn’t dying. The lab results show she is. I also don’t know how to simply smile with her husband. The gravity of their situation seems to hit me harder than it does them, or perhaps they’ve found the inner strength to cope.
As a rising healthcare professional, the tragedy of life enters my office every day. The medical histories and stories of illness are so prevalent and complex. Walking down the street, I wouldn’t have imagined that every other person has a story of pain to share. Whether a doctor, a neighbor, or a friend, it’s often hard to know just what to say. It’s hard to imagine that this beautiful world God created is filled with so much pain.
Even to a doctor, the pain can at times overwhelm the human spirit. When interacting with the grieving family, the logical option seems to be acknowledging the truth. “We can try other treatments, but they probably won’t work,” the doctors say. There’s limited liability in providing medical fact. Or “the next choice is yours, but be sure to discuss what you will do if the disease doesn’t go away.”
By all laboratory indications, the person is dying. In tearful hugs, we can mourn with the ill woman while she is still living. We can join in her pain, though we’ll never quite know how her pain actually feels. In the medical profession, we often see doctors following this route, only to swallow their emotions and present a cold front. Death becomes medical fact. Sorrow becomes a symptom. It may be a defense mechanism. It may be a doctor’s way of coping. After sharing in enough stories of bad news, the medical hearts grow too sturdy to even feel the impact of the word ‘terminal.’
I was wheelchair bound and unable to move. For months, I had no diagnosis and no hope.
But the reality is that acceptance of and submission to medical fact does more harm than good. At the age of ten, I was diagnosed with a rare neurologic pain disorder, Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy. Redness, swelling, and excruciating pain spread throughout my body. I was wheelchair bound and unable to move.
For months, I had no diagnosis and no hope. Scans and x-rays weren’t providing answers, and medications were barely offering relief. By all medical indications, there was no hope, and most of the doctors agreed. They gave into pure fact and joined in my sorrowful frustration, blaming me for the pain when they couldn’t find an answer, sentencing me to a life in a nursing home when they couldn’t find a cure. For months, not a single doctor offered a statement of hope. In that environment, sitting crippled with pain, my family and I naturally started to lose our hope as well.
Now, as a medical professional, I can understand why my doctors did that. But there is an element of medicine that is intangible. Some call it the placebo effect, the ability of a false medical substance to provide true relief. This effect can come about from taking a sugar pill, but also from having the autonomy to choose your own treatment with the belief that it will work. I, however, believe the more proper explanation of a placebo is a touch of miracle and faith. Physicians see these miracles happening every day – the person who wasn’t supposed to walk finally rises, the man who was about to die finds remission, my red and swollen as a child flesh finally heals.
If medicine said there was no hope, fate wouldn’t have it. Not yet.
Medical logic said to plan for the worst, but the patient and perhaps the physician, too, refused to give up. If medicine said there was no hope, fate wouldn’t have it. Not yet. And faith that healing was to come was enough for these patients to keep fighting for life; it was enough for these miracle recoveries to occur.
But if the doctor were to enter my hospital room with incredible hope and uplifting faith, she would have to no scientific reasoning to explain this positivity. She’d lose credibility in saying, “I just have faith.” To be honest, even I want my doctors to have randomized control studies in their computer files, not a hard drive of faith as they pump medicine through my epidural.
And for a while, as a rising physician, I reminded myself of my own preference and tried my hand at objective acceptance of what is. The tooth is hopeless; the cancer is terminal. That’s simply fact, so there is no utility to even a glimmer of optimism in delivering a prognosis. No randomized control study can prove that optimism heals an infected tooth; who am I to say it does?
The Torah instructs, “Distance yourself from a matter of falsehood.” In literal translation, that would mean doing exactly as many doctors do: accepting fact and telling our patients only that.
But when I pray, I have no blood test proving God’s existence. I have no x-ray of heaven. And those prayers are far from falsehoods. As doctors try to understand through studying the placebo effect, there’s something intangible to medicine that, like prayer, is still very real and incredibly powerful.
What happens next may lead to grief, but it may, too, lead to joy.
Certainly, we each as individuals have a right to know about our own medical conditions. If we want the full, objective truth, that is what our doctors should and must provide. But as a doctor, or as a knowing friend, neighbor, or fellow human being, I have learned through Judaism that truth and faith are not mutually exclusive. Even in despair, there is hope. I learned that as I rose from the wheelchair.
Even in darkness, we can bow our heads and pray. What happens next may lead to grief, but it may, too, lead to joy. Whether you call faith a placebo or less medically, a trust in God, the result is the same: healing is so intimately a spiritual state.