Prayer has science on its side

By Cassandra Spratling

Detroit Free Press

Published: Friday, Sept. 16 2011 9:00 p.m. MDT

Thanks to a growing body of research, religion and medicine are joining forces in ways far beyond hospital chaplains.


DETROIT — Each Wednesday, more than 250 people attend the Blessing of the Sick service at the Solanus Casey Center on Detroit's east side. They pray for the healing of themselves or people they love.

Recently, Katie Valenti, 28, was among the faithful who gathered at the center. The Plymouth, Mich., native was in town visiting from Mandeville, La.

In January, Valenti was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. She has had two surgeries and eight rounds of chemotherapy and will undergo radiation therapy in August. Faith always has been important to the Valenti family, but the cancer has given them even more reason to pray.

There was a time when medicine and faith had clear borders. Doctors treated the physical body and religious leaders fed the spiritual body. But thanks to a growing body of research and the increased presence of health practitioners whose faith is part of their practice, religion and medicine are joining forces in ways far beyond the hospital chaplain.

"There is a fair amount of science to substantiate the power of prayer, belief and spirituality to positively impact the healing process," said Dr. Michael Seidman, medical director of the Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine at the Henry Ford Health System. "It matters not what you believe. It matters that you believe."

Seidman, who also is a surgeon, said that on occasion, with the family's consent, he has prayed with his patients before surgery.

"I have asked if I may join in," he said. "I'm there to reassure the family and to bond with them. It shows that I, too, have faith and it is important to me as well. It's certainly not going to hurt, and if people believe it'll help, that helps the healing process."

Valenti, who attended the Detroit healing service with her mother, Karen Valenti, agrees.

"It gives you courage to fight," Katie Valenti said. "There were some dark moments when I was first diagnosed and after my surgeries when I didn't know if I'd make it through. My mom would say, 'Send up all your fears and worries and discomforts and aches and say, "Today I can't handle this, but I know you can.'" I did, and I felt better, and I got through the day. Now, I pray and thank God that I'm still here."

Not only is faith entering hospitals in varying ways, hospitals have entered houses of worship.

In 2009, the Henry Ford system piloted a project aimed at reducing health disparities within the African-American community. It put kiosks in four churches where parishioners can go for information and guidance on a variety of health concerns, including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and HIV-AIDS.

The kiosks were funded primarily by Health Alliance Plan and the William Davidson Foundation. Plans are under way to add six more to other metro Detroit churches by the end of the year.

The program was developed by Wilma Ruffin, manager of research programs for Henry Ford and a woman who said she owes her very existence to the power of prayer.

Relatives told her that when she was born, she was not breathing. A doctor pronounced her dead and covered her body. An aunt, a grandmother and a midwife prayed for her, and she began breathing. Even so, doctors warned her parents that she would have brain damage. She did not.

"I'm a survivor from prayer," said Ruffin, 60.

Ruffin said a growing number of churches have health ministries. Though their primary role used to be providing first aid to congregants, their roles are expanding to include education, outreach and prayer for the sick.

This year, a Wayne State University study found that if traumatic brain injury victims feel close to a higher power, it can help them rehabilitate. The study of 88 patients at the Rehabilitation Institute of Michigan in Detroit was published in the February issue of Rehabilitation Psychology.

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