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Prayer has science on its side

By Cassandra Spratling

Detroit Free Press

Published: Friday, Sept. 16 2011 10:17 p.m. MDT

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

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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.

"Feeling connected to a higher power positively impacted not only their feelings, but their functional outcomes, what they were able to do. So they didn't just feel better, there was evidence they functioned better in their ability to do daily tasks," said lead investigator Brigid Waldron-Perrine, who's now at the University of Michigan working on a postdoctoral degree in neuropsychology.

The study used various questionnaires to assess patients' spiritual practices and beliefs and their physical and psychological well-being. Researchers also interviewed the patients as well as significant others about how well the patient handled daily tasks, such as managing their own finances and going out in the community alone.

"Having a connection to a higher power was predictive of positive rehabilitation outcomes," Waldron-Perrine said.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant allowed University of South Carolina researcher Jane Teas to interview 135 people who believed God had a role in healing them. The study was published last year and resulted in a book titled "Faith Heals: Stories of God's Love," (SC McAC Press, $16.23).

"Our stories give testimony to a supreme presence and power of God; but not as passive, hidden in people's souls or sitting aloof on a throne in heaven. God in these stories is active, transforming the ordinary wounds of sickness and adversity to well-being and joy, using visions, dreams and whispers heard in the heart," Teas writes in the book's introduction.

"We're not saying throw out your medicine," Teas said in an interview. "We are saying there is something powerful that goes with believing. I can't say it's not real. I can say there is a force in our world that we don't know enough about to discount. I suppose one day we'll have a nasal spray for the peace that surpasses all understanding."

Greg Jonesku, 67, of Novi, Mich., is in remission from two bouts with prostate cancer; he also has heart problems. He became more active in his church about five years ago

If nothing else, faith and prayer have improved his emotional health, he said.

"I have a better attitude," Jonesku said. "I'm more relaxed, more peaceful. I don't get upset as much as I used to. I think it came from realizing that I'm not in total control, but there is somebody out there who is in total control, and I want to be closer to that someone."

Many believers don't need any scientific or medical validation for their faith.

"If we could prove it, it wouldn't be faith," said the Rev. Larry Webber, director of the Solanus Casey Center in Detroit and the person who usually leads the weekly service at which people pray for themselves or others who are ill.

The approximately one-hour service is open to people of all faiths, he said.

The service, called a Blessing of the Sick, is celebrated at 2 p.m. every Wednesday and 2 p.m. every fourth Sunday at the St. Bonaventure Chapel of the Solanus Casey Center, 1780 Mt. Elliott.

For more information, see solanuscenter.org/healing.shtml

Dist. by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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