The Pastor and Doctor at the Bedside of the Sick

How many persons have been treated for physical sicknesses and have died without reacting when the visit of a well-qualified minister may have discovered that a spiritual problem was the basis of the trouble. Nevertheless, while man takes pride in having conquered space, he is still an infant in relation to the greatest of all conquests, that of knowing himself.

IN THIS era of progress and great advances in science it seems almost inconceivable that the physician and the minister have been only recently entering into professional contact with each other in institutions where medicine and social work have reached their maximum development. It is sad to think that the one treats the body and the other man's spiritual nature, the soul, without discovering that man is an entity composed of both these elements and that whatever treatment excludes the one is not in harmony with this basic principle. How many persons have been treated for physical sicknesses and have died without reacting when the visit of a well-qualified minister may have discovered that a spiritual problem was the basis of the trouble. Nevertheless, while man takes pride in having conquered space, he is still an infant in relation to the greatest of all conquests, that of knowing himself.

While visiting the sick in the different hospitals of Manhattan, Long Island, and Brooklyn during the term I have worked as pastor in New York City, I have often found myself by the bedside of a sick person when the physician arrived for his daily visit. His attention, as was to be expected, went immediately to the patient. He looked in my direction only to greet me. Rarely did the physician see or recognize me as a professional person. In some religious organizations the tunic or toga that identifies the minister is not used, which explains in part the state of things, although we know that "the garb does not make the monk."

When I, as a visiting social psychiatrist, assisted psychiatrists of the Islip State Hospital Center on Long Island, I discovered with surprise that in this place, the second largest hospital in the world, with a staff of physicians and specialists of world renown, the situation was not very different.

Minister-Doctor Gap

I saw professionals endeavoring to help the patient at admission, but I did not see a pastor or spiritual leader providing his spiritual needs. There were ministers to at tend the Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish patients, but their participation was minor.

As soon as a patient enters the hospital, the physician looks him over scientifically, but the philosopher and theologian looks him over from a different viewpoint. In other words, while the one attempts to heal the physical ills, the other is occupied with the problems of the spirit, both for getting that the whole man is the sum of these two factors.

Often I, as a minister, have attempted to establish a closer relationship with the physician of the patient I was visiting, but I never fully succeeded, because the two of us looked at the patient differently. More over, physicians do not always see in the minister a professional. There are two explanations for this. First, it has been only in the past two decades that the minister and the physician have begun to under stand each other and to work as a team. This has occurred mostly in large hospitals where physicians as well as ministers have received in their preparation the influence of the new trends. The other explanation is the unfortunate fact that some religions grant ministerial credentials to those who lack adequate preparation and thus use poor judgment and give wrong impressions.

In order to establish a solid and ample relationship with the physician, the pastor ought to know his limitations and not enter into the dangerous terrain of excessive dogmatism, the point where professional relations between physician and minister usually begin to freeze. This sometimes results from the minister seeking to solve with prayer the problem for which the medical man has his explanation and remedy. For this reason it is the minister's duty to know something about medicine in order to understand the physician. The doctor also should have some understanding of our profession; but, unfortunately, and particularly in Latin America, we have not yet reached this ideal.

When a minister visits the sick he ought, insofar as possible, to know what the patient's illness is, something in general concerning it, and how to adapt what he is going to say to the needs of the ailing person. How often an inappropriate conversation of a pastor puts the patient in tension, necessitating a tranquilizer or calming medication. On other occasions, every body, including the minister, converses with animation while the weary patient feebly lies in need of sleep.

Suggestions for Hospital Calls

To help the minister avoid bad moments in his work for the sick, I present here a few suggestions I consider essential to a successful pastoral visit with a sick person in a hospital. Put into practice, they will contribute much to the patient's recovery:

1. Offer your services to the physician as soon as you are informed of the admittance of the church member to the hospital. Tell the doctor who you are and of your close relationship to the family.

2. When visiting the patient, tell him only that which may serve to encourage him. Do not discuss with him his illness unless he desires to tell you "what the doc tor says."

3. Speak in the appropriate tone of voice; not loud and not so low as to require strained effort on the part of the patient to hear you. Keep in mind that a patient, particularly under the effects of a sedative, does not need and does not understand many words. "I shall be here praying for you" are the sweetest and most comforting words a sick person can hear from the lips of the pastor before being taken into the operating room. While he is being operated on, the patient depends on the professional ability of the medical staff and the anesthetist. Yet he knows that before the operation is performed God will be asked to be present in answer to the prayers of the pastor. The confirmation of this knowledge when he recovers is also a blessed reality, an experience so special that one cannot fully appreciate it unless he has experienced it.

The minister will also bring comfort to those friends and relatives who are with him in the waiting room. The precious time thus spent will save the minister months of labor, because the family, united with the pastor in a psychological moment such as this, will be forever grateful and may become his most effective co-laborers in the future.

4. Be brief. Carefully decide what to say to the patient in order that the visit may not last too long. This is what is called a professional therapeutic visit. Prolonging a visit beyond what is necessary destroys its good effect.

It is important that you know what you are going to say. If the pastor succeeds in changing the limited view of the patient and can stimulate his enthusiasm and spirit of cooperation with the physician until the state of depression caused by the illness is overcome, then he is gaining his objective and fulfilling a responsibility many times ignored or underestimated.

5. Listen. A minister should be a good listener, and at times this attitude can be of more value than a chat or a Bible study. The sick person wishes to get something important "off his chest," to share his bur dens with somebody, so lend a listening ear.

6. Do not act as if you know everything. When a minister has the answer for everything the patient may mention about his ailment, including the medicine, he is lessening his effectiveness.

7. This has to do with the minister's ability to apply his knowledge. In his relationship to the patient, the minister ought to try to understand what he says and to dis cover behind his words the sentiments that have led him to make his statements. Frequently statements that apparently are unimportant reveal clearly and distinctly the disturbed emotional state of the patient. It may be some family problem or concern about the bills that he is incurring while in the hospital. The pastor not only performs a pastoral duty, but in trying to help the patient resolve his financial problem he also fulfills a valuable duty of a social nature. This will not always be understood by others, but the patient will thank him, and it may well be a factor that will con tribute to his recuperation. These simple duties of love and concern may not bring prominence, but they will bring great rewards.

I do not recall that any physician has recognized publicly my participation in the recuperation of a patient, but I do give thanks to the Lord because He has shown me the valuable role that was mine as a connecting link between the patient and the physician and between the patient and his Maker. We must learn to forget our selves and give effective ministerial service, devoid of egotism and personal ambition, in order that we may be the channels through which the Spirit of God can flow in abundance and without interference to those in need.

8. The pastor should never give orders of any kind to the patient. This bad tendency has been the cause of the failure of most of the ministers who do not succeed in their ministry to the sick. We must be particularly careful in conversation with the sick during the period of convalescence, when the level of tolerance is low and when reproof ought not to take the place of words of courage and hope.

May God help us to improve and thus make a valuable contribution at the side of the physician in the treatment of those who lie on a bed of pain.

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January 1970

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