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Friar discusses health, spirituality

Emma Driscoll | Monday, March 17, 2008

Franciscan friar Daniel Sulmasy spoke about the similarities between administering health care and living a spiritual life Friday at McKenna Hall.

Sulmasy said that, while he expects most people to disagree that medicine is a spiritual practice, he finds an “infinite space that exists between [physician’s] hands and the bodies of the patients that [they] touch” and that there is a “transcendent healing present in that space.”

Sulmasy said that the distinction between spirituality and religion is important in understanding the role of spirituality in health care.

“In one sense, spirituality is broader…[it is] the characteristics and qualities of one’s relationship with transcendence,” he said. “By contrast, a religion is a specific set of beliefs about transcendence…obviously not everybody has a religion.”

Sulmasy said that to heal individuals wholly, it is important to look at how disease affects them spiritually in addition to physically. He related the story of a patient diagnosed with lung cancer last fall to support his view on the connection.

The patient had met Sulmasy previously at a conference and had been impressed by his lecture. “I know I can’t be cured, I want a doctor for when things get bad,” the patient said to Sulmasy.

Sulmasy began treating the patient and making house calls – something that he had not done in a long time – once the patient was too sick to come to the hospital. He continued to treat the patient despite his personal dislike of the man and his neediness.

“What did he want from me?” Sulmasy asked his audience. “After all, I have to tell you, I really didn’t like him.”

Despite his personal feelings, Sulmasy gave the patient his beeper number when he asked for it.

In February, a call between Sulmasy and the patient’s home nursing staff confirmed that the patient was dying.

“I visited him for the last time that night,” he said.

The next morning, Sulmasy said he took a walk on the beach and could not stop thinking about the patient – even thanking him for teaching him about his own needs, as well as his role in the patient’s final months.

After his narrative, Sulmasy reiterated that spirituality is “so far out of what people seem to think is important about medicine, [but that] these things are so central to people,… not just to cope, but just in making sense of it.”

Sulmasy, a professor of medicine and the director of the Bioethics Institute of New York Medical College, also holds the Sisters of Charity chair in ethics at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan. He is the editor-in-chief of the journal “Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics” and has written four books.

His lecture, entitled “Is Health Care a Spiritual Discipline?” was a part of the 23rd annual Notre Dame Medical Ethics Conference.

The lecture was sponsored by Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture and the Alumni Association’s Alumni Continuing Education Office.