What started as a sore tongue for Eva Grayzel more than a decade ago turned out to be a tumor that went misdiagnosed for two years.
Now the Jewish storyteller and survivor of stage IV cancer travels the country warning people to “go with your gut” when dealing with doctors and to push their dentists to conduct full oral examinations on a regular basis.
But there’s another message the Pennsylvania resident weaves into her colorful stories: Spirituality is also important when facing illness or death.
During a recent visit to Jacksonville, she shared how prayers of gratitude helped her through surgery and devastating radiation treatments. And so did God working through other people.
“You don’t realize the value of religious community until you’re sick,” Grayzel told close to 100 gathered late last month at the Jacksonville Marriott Southpoint.
Grayzel’s hard-learned lesson is one that the medical community seems to be learning as well.
A growing number of health-care institutions, from hospitals to medical schools, are adopting attitudes and programs integrating spirituality and medicine.
“More and more research is being done” on the role of spirituality in healing, said Christina Puchalski, founder and executive director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health and a physician at George Washington University. “There’s a lot of talk about what gives meaning and how spirituality is a way” to help patients cope with suffering.
Puchalski said the long-time opposition to spiritual approaches began to fade in the 1990s. “People just got tired of a very mechanized, science-based health care system,” Puchalski said. “They wanted to be treated like people; they wanted relationships.”
The result has been the creation of organizations such as Puchalski’s and a proliferation of scientific research into the effectiveness and use of alternative and complementary health practices, such as acupuncture and Eastern medicine. Institutions have also began to affirm patients’ spirituality and to offer programs “to help them find their own inner resources to heal and find wholeness,” she said.
Religious acceptance grows
But it’s not just health-care professionals seeing the light that accounts for the change in attitude, others say. It’s also occurred because religious groups and individuals began to recognize the ancient – and long ignored – healing practices built into their own traditions.
Francis McNutt has watched that phenomenon among Christians. He is the co-founder of Christian Healing Ministries, a Jacksonville-based ecumenical organization that promotes healing prayer. Its work has been internationally recognized.
McNutt is a former Catholic priest who has been involved in Christian approaches to healing for four decades. In that time he’s watched as healing prayer and services have moved from exclusively Pentecostal settings to the sanctuaries of Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and other mainline churches.
“It’s no longer a big deal for a [Catholic] priest to have a healing service,” McNutt said.
The Rev. Jose Maniyangat can vouch for that. His monthly healing service at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Macclenny draws up to 500, compared to just a few dozen when it began in 1999.
Maniyangat said he has noted a growing acceptance among church leaders and lay people, and noted that those attending his services also come from the ranks of Protestants and even non-believers.
Media, pop culture take note
The importance of spirituality and healing has even reached a mainstream, pop culture level, said Judith McNutt, wife of Francis McNutt and co-founder of the spirituality center.
“‘Spirituality and health’ is the buzzword,” Judith McNutt said. “Time, Newsweek, every major magazine has done something on spirituality and health in the last five years – Oprah’s doing it.”
Interest in the media coincided with popular interest in Eastern and New Age religions that are perceived to have a greater focus on the spiritual dimensions of health, she said.
Doctors have definitely taken note, Francis McNutt added.
“When you address a group, you don’t have to prove that this is at least interesting and worthy to be heard,” he said.
Spirituality becoming required
The topic is not only being heard, but becoming required, said Mark McIntosh, a physician at Shands Jacksonville hospital and director of its corporate wellness program.
Accreditation agencies are beginning to demand institutions demonstrate competence in spiritual wellness, especially in oncology programs where patients and their families face life-threatening conditions, McIntosh said.
Shands is among a growing number of institutions implementing such approaches for patients whether they’re facing death or not, he said. Known as palliative care, it uses an interdisciplinary team approach in which patients receive a special assessment used to tailor an integrated medical, psychological and spiritual healing plan.
“Three-quarters of hospitals across the country have a palliative care type program … because obviously [life-threatening illness] has huge ramifications, including spiritual and economic,” he said.