Edited English version
Interview: Vidula Bhoyroo Safft
see that people who pray tend to have healthier
There are a number of scientific
studies that have shown that prayer certainly
seems to increase the possibility of healing
without the untoward side effects of medications,"
says Pam Kircher, MD.
Dr. Pam Kircher is a board-certified family
and hospice/palliative care physician. She serves
as the Medical Director of the Wellness Center
at Mercy Medical Center. She has her counseling
practice in Durango, Colorado, USA, and is the
secretary of the board of the International
Association of Near-Death Studies. In 1995,
Dr. Kircher published Love is the Link: A Hospice
Physician Shares Her Experience of Near-Death
and Dying. Since that time, she has spoken locally
and nationally about near-death experiences
and end-of-life issues.
GetWellness: Prayer has long been an
integral part of life for humans, whether it
was praying to nature, the sun, moon, stars,
deities or a god. So why is science suddenly
interested in how prayer may benefit or even
heal us? Even the US National Institute of Health
(NIH) and the US Congress have been funding
studies on prayer.
Dr. Kircher: In the late Middles Ages,
those working in the church and in science decided
that they would deal with their areas of expertise
separately. This caused a big split between
science and religion. Before that time, it was
a standard practice to incorporate spirituality
in the care of a seriously- ill person. The
healer not only administered medications, but
he or she also prayed. I think in this modern
age the interest in prayer started with a study
conducted in 1988 at San Francisco General Hospital
by Dr. Randolph Byrd. He is a cardiologist who
wondered if his patients would have better outcomes
if they were being prayed for. To answer that
question, he designed a study in his coronary
care unit with the consent of the 393 patients
who were enrolled in the study. All the patients
received conventional medical care. Dr. Byrd
put half the patients in the group that was
prayed for and half in a control group that
was not prayed for by the prayer groups that
were participating in the study. The doctors,
nurses and patients did not know who was in
which group. The results were dramatic and surprised
many scientists. He found that those in the
group that was prayed for (1) required 1/3 as
many antibiotics as the control group; (2) were
1/3 as likely to develop pulmonary edema (a
condition where the lungs fill with fluid because
the heart cannot pump properly); (3) did not
need a tube in the throat to help them breathe
(compared to 12 patients in the control group.)
This study showed that prayer does makes a difference
that is statistically significant!
GetWellness: And in the 1990's there
were many more studies.
Dr. Kircher: Actually, Dr. Matthews
of Georgetown University School of Medicine
in Washington, DC, has reviewed more than 200
studies linking prayer and health. These studies
indicate that people who pray are less likely
to fall sick, have a higher chance of recovering
from surgery and illness, and are better able
to handle their illnesses than people who do
not pray. Currently, the NIH (National Institute
of Health) is funding two big multi-regional
studies on prayer and healing. Many of us doctors
feel that the immune system is strengthened
by a sense of peace. And we assume that something
like prayer, which comforts and give peace,
could influence how a person recovers from a
GetWellness: What is prayer?
Dr. Kircher: People who have been writing
about prayer are contemplating this question.
Some of us believe there are two types of prayer:
One is asking for specific outcomes. Another
is asking for an outcome that is of the highest
good for a particular person or in a particular
situation. From my perspective, prayer is about
connecting with other people and wishing them
profoundly well. For instance, Buddhists do
pray, though they do not believe in a God but
in universal good and love.
GetWellness: Somehow, it's hard to separate
God and prayer.
Dr. Kircher: We human beings have always
had a sense that there is something larger than
ourselves, that we are part of a greater whole;
and that we are more than just our bodies. So
a form of prayer was present long before there
were specific religions. Religions help us give
form to our spiritual yearning, but it's prayer
that connects us to this yearning.
GetWellness: Can religion play a role
in living a healthier life?
Dr. Kircher: Many studies support that.
We see that people who pray tend to have healthier
lifestyles. They tend not to smoke, not to drink
in excess and not to sleep around. So they tend
to lead lives that would make them healthier.
A 1995 study from Dartmouth College, following
up on 250 patients after open-heart surgery,
found that those with religious connections
were 12 times less likely to die than those
who had no religious connections. At Duke University,
researchers assessed 1,000 hospital patients
with depression from 1987 to 1989 and concluded
that those who had the support of religious
practices fared better than those who did not.
Some studies show that people who generally
have a hostile temperament and are often angry
are more prone to heart disease. And every religion
talks about love and discourages hostility-another
reason why spiritual people tend to be healthier.
I also think that they tend to connect with
others more, and do not to see themselves as
the center of the universe. Many studies demonstrate
that people who feel genuinely connected with
others have less cancer, less heart disease
and are healthier. This is not to say that those
with cancer or heart disease have not been living
well. These studies talk about statistics and
not about individual people. We have to be careful
not to create a belief system where people come
to blame themselves for being ill. We know that
there are many contributing factors to the development
of an illness and that many of these factors
are beyond our control.
GetWellness: In his studies, Dr. Herbert
Benson from Harvard University has shown that
all types of prayer evoke a relaxation response
that lessens stress, quiets the body and promotes
healing. How come?
Dr. Kircher: He was the cardiologist
who coined the term, the relaxation response.
He taught people how to relax and meditate.
He was basically interested in lowering his
patients' blood pressures. He told them they
could use any word and repeat it over and over,
like a mantra, and that they would come to associate
it with relaxation. To his great amazement he
found that these people were inadvertently having
powerful religious experiences. It seems that
when we relax and become still, we are drawn
into an experience of spirituality.
GetWellness: Must the positive effects
of prayer be proven in order to accept that
it has a place in the healing process?
Dr. Kircher: There has been some criticism
from religious leaders saying that this is not
the purview of science. They say that prayer
works, it does not need to be proven, and some
say that doing studies at all is a lack of faith
in God. However, I believe that the studies
are helpful for scientists because many scientists
are not experienced in prayer and they are convinced
that science is the answer to all problems.
Presently, about 30 medical schools in the United
States are offering courses in spirituality
GetWellness: Maybe we have to accept
that some healing effects of prayer are beyond
Dr. Kircher: There have been many studies
that showed the positive effect of prayer. For
example, Dr. John Astin found 27 studies with
over 3,000 subjects that showed that prayer
has positive effects that could be measured.
Some of the prayers were used on non-human subjects
like bacteria, yeast, plants, cancer cells,
mice, algae, animals, enzymes and red blood
cells. So non-human subjects can also feel the
positive effects of prayer. These were all changes
that could be measured in a scientific way.
However, I think there are more subtle changes
in a person's life as the result of prayer that
may never be measured. Prayer brings a sense
of peace and connection that is profound way
beyond its health benefits.
GetWellness: To pray, does one have
to go to an official praying place, or can it
be done anywhere?
Dr. Kircher: I believe prayer is most
effective when it comes directly from the heart.
It does not matter if we are alone or with others
or if we are in a traditional place of worship
or in our own homes. It is the prayer of the
heart that brings change in a life or in our
GetWellness: How would you encourage
people to pray?
Dr. Kircher: We need to first learn
to be silent and to make the time to sit in
stillness. It is helpful to learn to meditate,
which is merely focusing and breathing. Not
only is it important to spend time in silence,
but it is also important not to be constantly
busy in every moment. Focusing on "being"
instead of "doing" helps people come
in contact with deeper parts of themselves.
As they begin to know themselves better, they
begin to feel their connection with other beings
and with the Divine, and they begin to truly
wish everyone profoundly well. It is that connection
and that sincere well-wishing that constitutes
GetWellness: How would you like to see
the future of prayer in the medical community,
in terms of treatment and healing?
Dr. Kircher: I would like for physicians
to be aware of the studies on prayer and healing
and to share those very positive findings with
their patients. I would like for physicians
to become more aware of their own spirituality
and to recognize that when they combine their
love for humanity and the Divine in each of
us with the science that they have learned in
medical school, only then will they truly be
practicing the healing arts.
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