Class of 2020
Alexis del Vecchio
Religion is a very complex and even frustrating discipline to study and explore. The current era presents humanity with the remarkable opportunity to actively engage in interreligious dialogue. The Western world has been historically based upon dualities and separations. The humanities, the sciences, and other areas of thought have been compartmentalized from one another. Western medicine has proven to be a field that has attempted to separate science from existential philosophy, religiosity, and faith in order to understand the physical world in a logical, cohesive manner. Can we really separate these areas of the human experience from one another? With modernity causing different ethnic and religious populations to live and work closely with one another, different religious traditions have become more integrated into the social framework. In order to treat the wholeness of the individual, should we not be cognizant that there is more to caring for others than our medical knowledge and prescriptions?
As a medical student with a undergraduate degree in religion, I am always asked, “Why religion?” I reply that religion is more than a set of ideas, beliefs, and practices that define a particular group – it is a fundamental way of living life, and those views shape the way people perceive the physical and spiritual world. I wanted to major in religion in order to understand belief systems and practices, so that I may be better able to connect with all those I will come across in my life. I concentrated in the Christian and Buddhist traditions, and I realized that in order to truly understand religion, it requires an active participation on one’s part to engage in the living theology. Though one may not always agree with another’s way of thinking, it allows for a unique relationship centered on a mutual respect and a desire to bridge the existent religious barrier. Imagine if we all took a little more time to learn about our neighbor’s differences.
The M1 class recently had a lecture from a chaplain at the hospital discussing the integration of medicine and religion. It was reassuring to remember that hospitals are supporting patients in ways other than physical treatment alone. Patients are not abstract subjects that should be treated like they are waiting in an assembly line. These patients are humans. They come from a set of beliefs, whether religious or not, and these ideologies will greatly influence the way they view and experience medical care. Several students commented that it appears difficult to confront others about religion in a medical setting. Some may feel uncomfortable voicing their thoughts out of fear of being ostracized because of their minority beliefs. Others told the class about their experiences with physicians who use prayer in their practice with patients; however, others noted that they have seen physicians shy away from such topics of religion. As someone deeply interested in spirituality and its use in medicine, I found the discussion very fruitful.
We were taught that we would all have varying ways of dealing with the use of religion in our future profession. Some will embrace the conversations, while some will refer their patients to religious leaders in the hospital. The class discussed developing a way to affirm, value, meet, and educate the patients through compassionate understanding. At the heart of the lecture was a commitment to giving the greatest care possible to the patient and establishing a relationship. After much thought and prayer about the subject, I have come to several realizations and remembered some words from a devout healer.
“There is a light in this world, a healing spirit more powerful than any darkness we may encounter. We sometimes lose sight of this force when there is suffering, too much pain. Then suddenly, the spirit will emerge through the lives of ordinary people who hear a call and answer in extraordinary ways.”
At the heart of medicine is not so much in the power of knowledge, but more so in the wisdom and love of the soul. Religion and spirituality is often a controversial topic not universally agreed upon, and I have seen misunderstandings and awkward situations ensue in a variety of settings in the hospital. However, I have also seen the moving and awe-inspiring acts of faith. I once shadowed a surgeon who asked each patient if they wanted to pray with him before their operation. Out of the patients who accepted, I witnessed a powerful connection between two people – the patient and the provider – who sought guidance, peace, and hope from a source other than themselves. For the patient who denied the opportunity, the doctor then held the patient’s hand with one hand and with his other hand on her back, he assured her by saying, “I will be there with you every step of the way during your surgery, and I can promise you that I will do my very best to take care of you with all that I am.”
I witnessed patients with stress, anxiety, and fear come to a state of peace, acceptance, and trust with the physician. I noticed their physical state become less tense and rigid. Since their arrival at the hospital, I saw patients smile, and I even noticed that one began crying after the prayer. These experiences could prove to be even more beneficial for the “whole” health outcome of the patient. For some patients, a positive change in their hearts will drastically change their physical outcomes. Studies have shown the power of prayer, meditation, and mindfulness in the general health and lifestyle of patients. There are a multitude of stories that speak to the mystery of life when patients “defy the odds” and leave their healthcare providers in disbelief. I have read accounts when patients who underwent drastic life-saving surgeries wake to share with their physicians that he or she “was right above the operating table watching everything.”
Physicians must seek to understand the meaning of their patient’s stories in the context of their ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds in order to bridge a connection for an outcome of healing. Physicians’ beliefs and spiritual frameworks may also have an effect on the way they treat others and themselves. Healthcare providers accrue a great deal of stress over the course of long hours caring for others. When do they have time to recover from challenging experiences and focus on their own spirituality? The healthcare setting needs to allow providers to actively engage in their faith and find enjoyment in their profession. Rather than spending all of our time focusing on effectiveness and business, maybe we should spend a little more time on compassion and assessing committed holistic care for patients, families, and one another.
Early into my medical career, I have already found myself using religion in medicine. I have said quiet internal prayers for guidance before and after attending anatomy labs. I found myself alone in the anatomy lab studying late at night with multiple donor-bodies surrounding me. Each of them had their own religious beliefs, or lack thereof, and they all had their own unique story. I found myself saying blessings of thanksgiving for their sacrifices to help me in my medical education. When stress overcame me, I felt as if their spirits were helping me along the way. I have also been saying prayers for peace and good health for all of my patients I have encountered during my EMT shifts. My hope is that they all receive the proper love and medicine that they deserve.
I know what it is like to be a patient. After suffering a season-ending ACL injury in high school playing football, I know the feelings of exclusion from the larger group. My torn knee prohibited me from playing with my close friends, and I felt weak and broken. I know the feeling of “Why me?” and had thoughts of sadness and confusion. I have always wanted to be the “provider” and never the “receiver.” My independence fueled my hate when I had to allow someone else to take care of me. I began to question my own faith, and I felt alone.
On the day of my operation, I was confident, yet afraid of going under anesthesia. I was overwhelmed when different nurses came into my area to shave my knee and begin IVs into my arms. I tried to close my eyes and find whatever faith I had within me to get through the operation. The nurse had just announced my rather elevated vital signs when I heard the curtains open, and I saw my father, mother, and one of my best friends and his father, another surgeon at the clinic, standing around my bed. My friend’s father smiled and asked if he could give me a blessing in hopes for a good surgery and a strong recovery. Slowly, all those present in that small area joined hands and we all bowed our heads. I remember hearing his gentle words of prayer, and it is hard to describe what I felt in my heart. I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off of my chest, and I kept my eyes closed. Shortly thereafter I heard the anesthesiologist enter the room and my body went to sleep, and I felt at peace.
Little did I know that I apparently smiled when I was drifting off into sleep. I woke up to hear from my nurse that following my blessing my elevated vital signs immediately began to drop back to normal levels. Looking back on this experience, I think there was something more going on in that pre-operative room.
“A generous heart, kind speech, and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.”
I was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee before heading to Furman University for my undergraduate studies. Football brought me to South Carolina, and I participated on the varsity team for a little over a year before deciding to focus more of my time on my studies and community involvement. I graduated Furman in May 2014 with a degree in Religion, and I believe that my background allows for a unique perspective into the lives of patients. I have been wanting to practice medicine since my youth, and I am grateful for the opportunity given to me by the USC School of Medicine Greenville to pursue that dream.
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