Sean O’Dwyer slowly walked out into the parking lot of Ursuline Academy, an exclusive, all-girls school in the Cincinnati suburb of Blue Ash. The well-wishes and congratulations from colleagues were still ringing in his ears as he made his way toward his car, drowning out the sounds of his footsteps on the blacktop. For the last 20 years, O’Dwyer worked at the academy as a guidance director, and today was the end. He was retiring. Calling it a career. As he reached his car and pulled out his keys, he turned and took one last look at the building. Two decades of his life were spent there, and they were about to become just memories. But retirement would be good—time spent on the golf course or visiting relatives in his native Ireland. It was a phase he was looking forward to, and as soon as he got home he would immediately begin celebrating that new beginning with his wife, Mary. Except something happened. O’Dwyer never made it home that day.
As O’Dwyer drove, he began feeling ill. Light-headed. Granted, it was an emotional day, and anybody would feel a little uneasy. But this was different. It felt…dangerous. Rather than taking any chances, he detoured into his doctor’s office. The doctor sent him straight to the emergency room. After a battery of tests, O’Dwyer was diagnosed with blocked arteries and cardiomyopathy, a disorder of the heart muscle. A week later, he found himself lying on an operating table undergoing quadruple bypass surgery. But that was just the beginning. Over the next four years, the O’Dwyers were hit with a series of major health problems. Sean developed kidney failure and bone cancer; Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer. Since both lived healthy lives—didn’t smoke or drink, no family history of these diseases, exercised regularly—the first question in their minds was “Why us?” It’s a common question for anyone with a serious illness to ask. But the medical industry is taking a greater interest in how patients answer that question. Studies show that hospitalized people who believe and trust in God show greater rates of recovery and improved health. Those who aren’t religious not only struggle with their illness, but are at an increased risk for death—as much as a 28 percent greater mortality rate during the two-year period following their medical discharge. The results are so conclusive, in fact, that more than half of all medical schools in the United States have started offering courses on spirituality. “The first thing people do when they’re diagnosed is ask ‘Why me?’ or ‘Why me, God?’ ” says Dr. Harold Koenig, director of the Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health at Duke University. “Some turn away from their religion, or feel they’re being punished by God or that God doesn’t love them. When that happens, they don’t do well.” For the O’Dwyers, their answer may have saved their lives.
The O’Dwyers are spiritual souls: he’s a former priest; she’s a former nun. They make weekly pilgrimages from their Hyde Park home to Bellarmine Chapel on the University campus for Mass. When their health problems hit, they turned to their faith. They received support from their parish community, which provided food, transportation and companionship. Letters from friends and family poured in. They’ve also made it a practice to meditate both together and alone. “Sometimes when I’m depressed or overwhelmed with anxiety, I’ll wash my face with the Lord’s water and ask for help,” says Mary. “I then begin to release the stress, and after that I might sit down and pray or meditate.” While the mental rewards of such practices are well-known, studies now show that they also convert into physical healing. Dr. Gail Barker, a 1976 graduate who earned her medical degree from the University of Cincinn-ati, says prayer and meditation actually trigger a physical healing reaction in the body. “It lends itself to a great relaxation response, and that response is a stress reliever,” Barker says. “Everything just works better in your body. Your breathing slows down. Your blood pressure lowers. You take in more oxygen. Your immune system kicks in, and that allows your body to move toward healing in a better way. It pushes you in the direction of health. It’s only been in the last 10 to 15 years that there has been more informative data to support prayer with patients. It’s really made doctors take a second look. The mind-body connection is big.”
At the forefront of much of that research is the Duke center, where its studies show that people who attend church frequently may have more stable immune systems than less frequent attendees. It also found that levels of private religious activity—meditation, prayer, Bible study—are a significant predictor of mortality in healthy, nondisabled adults. Those who have little to no activity face a 47 percent greater risk of dying. What’s also proving vitally important to the healing process is extending that spiritual component into the relationship with the physician. Many patients want to discuss spiritual issues with their physician, says Dr. Dale Matthews, an instructor at Georgetown University School of Medicine and author of The Faith Factor: Proof of the Healing Power of Prayer. He cites polls that show that 80 percent of all patients believe in the healing power of prayer, and two-thirds want their doctors to address spiritual issues with them. “We as doctors need to pay attention to what a patient thinks is important,” says Matthews. “Many patients turn to religion to make important decisions in their lives.” The biggest reason physicians don’t incorporate spiritual components into their practice, according to a study by the American Academy of Family Physicians, is expertise. They feel they lack the training to approach patients on faith-based matters, or to even identify those patients who desire spiritual discussions. “It was very verboten a few years ago for doctors to mix religion and medicine,” says Barker. “Doctors turning to their faith were at risk for looking like they were trying to convert patients. Because of that, I’ve seen doctors who have a deep faith keep it out of any treatment. Patients can sense that.” Medical schools are now working to bridge that gap. In 1992, only three out of the nation’s 126 accredited medical schools offered courses on incorporating spirituality into clinical care, says Dr. Christina Puchalski, director of the George Washing-ton Institute for Spirituality and Health. By 2000, however, that number grew to 72 out of 125 schools. “Patients are saying ‘We want our spiritual issues addressed‚’ ” says Puchalski. Sean and Mary O’Dwyer say their faith and spirituality have enriched their lives and helped them on their path toward healing. Sean’s cancer is stable and his heart condition improved, while Mary is recovering from her cancer. “One of the things we’ve discovered is that through spirituality, we’ve gotten more in touch with each other,” says Mary. “Listening to our hearts and being sensitive to each other’s needs. Just by holding hands, it’s a whole different way of praying. We’re on a path to healing.”