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Healers' Faith 73% of Doctors In Poll Say Miracles Can Happen

By MEG JONES Dec. 21, 2004

If anyone believes in miracles, it would probably be the people who see the entire range of human life from birth to death regularly - doctors.

So perhaps it's not surprising that an overwhelming majority of physicians say they believe that miracles occur.

In a national survey of 1,100 physicians released this week, 74% said they believe that miracles have happened in the past and 73% believe they can occur.

7 out of 10 docs have faith
73% (7 out of 10)Doctors say they believe "miracles" can happen.

Whether it's a terminal patient making a full recovery, someone waking up from a coma or a girl surviving rabies, doctors say they have seen things their scientific background and medical training cannot explain.

"Sometimes despite what we do or in spite of what we do, people get better, and I think they get better because of the hand of God," said Mushir Hassan, an internal medicine specialist at Elmbrook Memorial Hospital who is Muslim. Carl Olson, a radiation oncologist at Columbia St. Mary's, has treated cancer patients for almost 30 years. He has seen his share of things he can't explain.

"If you define a miracle as something that happens beyond scientific and medical explanation, there's no question in my mind there have been events that have happened over my many years as an oncologist that defy explanation," said Olson, who is Protestant.

The survey was conducted last weekend by HCD Research and the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies of The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Physicians surveyed were Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist.

The poll showed that American physicians are religious - 72% say they believe that religion provides a reliable and necessary guide to life. Among the other findings:
58% attend worship services at least once a month.
46% believe prayer is very important in their lives.
37% believe the miracle stories in the Bible are literally true, while half believe they are metaphorically true. The others indicated they didn't believe in the Bible's description of miracles.
67% encourage their patients to pray.

Physicians spend many years learning to treat symptoms and understanding the medical reasons for injuries and illnesses, but using faith, prayer and spirituality in their jobs is usually not part of their training.

"Generally speaking, you're taught in medical school that you should be careful about bringing up faith (with patients) - it's almost the American 'separation of church and state' mentality," said Hassan.

But Hassan said that once he feels comfortable with his patients and learns they are people of faith, he will discuss with them the power of spirituality in healing.

Quote by Mushir Hassan
"Sometimes despite what we do or in spite of what we do, people get better, and I think they get better because of the hand of God."

- Mushir Hassan, an internal medicine specialist at Elmbrook Memorial Hospital

Trisha Crissman, a Catholic chaplain who worked in hospices for years, pointed to studies that show that regular prayer, in any form, can affect not just a patient spiritually but physically, by decreasing blood pressure and heart rates.

"When we refer to miracles, everyone has a different definition," said Crissman, regional vice president of spiritual services for Covenant Healthcare System Inc. She directs a team of 18 chaplains.

"But I know there are many things that happen on a daily basis that physicians, nurses and chaplains will step back and say, 'The only thing that helps me understand this is when I turn to that other source outside of myself.' For many, that is God."

Crissman recalled a young woman who had checked into a hospice because she had less than six months to live. Riddled with metastasized tumors along her spine, the woman was in incredible pain. But she got better, left the hospice and returned to work.

Hassan remembered ministering to a patient suffering from heart and kidney failure and severe gastrointestinal problems. Thinking the patient was about to die, Hassan talked to her family and advised them to begin making funeral arrangements. Then the patient woke up, she improved and was discharged.

A part of the job

For Bruce Himelstein, who works with chronically ill children, faith is a part of his job.

"I think it's a matter of trust in your own faith and perceptions," said Himelstein, program director of the Palliative Care/Hospice Program at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin.

"We ask a lot of questions of our families about faith, transcendence and miracles. It's not something I've been trained in, but physicians who deal with sick kids find these issues to be important."

Himelstein, who is Jewish, wrote an article on miracles that recently was accepted for publication in the Journal of Palliative Medicine. The article was based on a eulogy he gave for a 21/2-year-old child he treated for a complex congenital syndrome.

"We see lots of often very sad situations with very sick kids, and some of them die. The paper was a reflection of the miracles we saw surrounding the death of one of our children," said Himelstein, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Julian De Lia, a physician at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center, brings prayer cards into operating rooms when he performs surgery. De Lia pioneered a procedure to treat twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome in which identical twins are joined by blood vessels. He believes in miracles.

"These events sometimes violate the scope of the laws of nature and, as a consequence, you can't help but suspect a supernatural cause," he said.