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Spiritual Practices, Healing, and Health Outcomes

by Mark Pettus, MD

While we can’t scientifically measure something as invisible as the human spirit, it is often the most significant element of a person’s healing. Medical doctor Mark Pettus writes and speaks nationally on the connection between spirituality and health. In this piece, he shares insights into just how tangible the human spirit is in the healing equation.

With all that science, can you tell me how light enters the soul?
—Henry David Thoreau

Not long ago I was walking through the aisles in the automotive department at a local discount store when a soft-spoken voice caught my attention. “Dr. Pettus, do you remember me?” I guessed this gentleman to be in his mid-forties. He was thin and walked toward me with a slight limp and a warm glimmer in his eyes. He was wearing hearing aids, and as he reached out to shake my hand, I noticed a scar on his forearm. I recognized it as the familiar scar of a dialysis shunt used to treat individuals whose kidneys have failed. I suddenly remembered who he was. “Mr. B,” I replied, “It’s great to see you. It’s been quite a while.”

It was a cold, winter evening in the Berkshires more than 12 years ago, when my beeper went off, flashing the familiar telephone extension of our regional emergency department. A young man had been found passed out and unresponsive by his father, who called 911. At the hospital, he was not breathing well on his own and had to be immediately put on a ventilator, and his vital organs were failing. His kidneys had shut down and his initial blood testing revealed severe metabolic imbalance. As this is my area of expertise, I was quickly fully immersed in the crisis confronting this young man and his family, who were shocked, broken, and afraid.

I had to initiate appropriate and immediate treatment while simultaneously obtaining all the information that I could from the family members present. We are taught in medical school that most answers to the clinical puzzles we confront can be found in the clues of the story that accompanies the person (something that is still quite true, despite the juggernaut of biomedical research and technological development of the last 25 years). I started piecing together this man’s story.

The critically ill young man before me, Mr. B, was an auto mechanic who worked in his father’s garage. When he collapsed, he had been confronting many “psychosociospiritual” issues in his life. His marriage was on the rocks, he was depressed, and he was drinking heavily in response to the pain and suffering. He was disconnected from everything that had once given his life meaning and had voiced suicidal thoughts. It suddenly struck me that this might have been a suicide attempt, and that antifreeze would been a logical choice for him. Even in small amounts, ethylene glycol, the active ingredient in antifreeze, is powerfully toxic and often lethal. Everything I was observing was consistent with this theory, which turned out to be true.

Mr. B required dialysis and ventilator support for several weeks, during which he spent in the intensive care unit. Eventually, his kidney function and overall strength began to improve, and he remarkably returned to full functioning. His at-home recovery was sustained by focus on his nutrition, metabolic support, and physical and emotional rehabilitation. Equally as important, his family began to reconcile deep and long-standing wounds, coming together with the goal of helping Mr.B, and themselves, heal. And despite the odds, this collective compassion did in fact create the conditions that allowed his broken spirit to mend.

And now, 12 years later, we quite unexpectedly ran into each other again. Mr. B’s hearing loss was an unfortunate consequence of this event, and one he seemed to peacefully coexist with. He was beaming with pride as he pointed to his dialysis scar, a palpable reminder of his “close call.” He was attending Alcoholics Anonymous faithfully and had reconnected with his children, his friends, and his parents. He loved his work and was good at it. His depression was much improved and he had recaptured his zest for living. He prayed regularly and expressed a sense of renewed gratitude for everything in his life. He was embracing life fully. We smiled, embraced, met eye to eye and heart to heart, and then we went our separate ways.

*****

I have cared for many individuals through the years—Nobel Laureates, orchestra conductors, political leaders, professional athletes, authors, custodians, and taxi drivers among others. And what I’ve seen is that the human spirit knows no education level, ethnicity, or socioeconomic class. Our spiritual well-being influences how we interpret and respond to the experiences of our lives; it influences our inner sense of self, strength, and safety; and it influences how we cope and care for ourselves when confronting illness and critical medical decisions.

And yet the health of a person’s spirit is most often unrecognized and inadequately addressed in an average health-care encounter. Spiritual wounds do not appear on X-rays. Nor will they be picked up on blood testing. Spiritual wounds may commonly take the form of

  • Disconnection from meaning and joy in one’s life
  • Disconnection from self and others
  • Diminished sense of self-value and worth
  • Loss of purpose
  • Loss of hope
  • Isolation, loneliness, and abandonment
  • Suffering
  • Shame or guilt.

Longevity and quality of life are most influenced by the spiritual domain of our human experience. This invisible element of life weaves its way into everything we think, say, feel, and do. The spiritual aspect of life can be understood as the pursuit of that which connects us to deeper meaning and purpose. Spiritual practice cultivates states of being such as compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, generosity, and authenticity. And spiritual practice is known to be associated with a host of health-promoting biological effects, including improved mood, decreased anxiety, better concentration, improved immune response, diminished inflammation, reduced stress-cortisol response, healthier behaviors, more meaningful relationships, and other positive outcomes. Whether it’s yoga, prayer, meditation, a walk in the woods, listening to inspirational musical, nurturing relationships, or knitting, all forms of spiritual practice have the potential to offer significant health benefits. There is simply no prescription I can write that unleashes such a myriad of biological healing benefits.

*****

Current mind-body science is bringing to light the biological underpinnings of our universal nature to love, to connect with others, and to transcend the individual self. This fascinating research is proving that we are by our very nature designed to heal and that powerful, primal systems exist within our biology to support this natural unfolding. As humans, cultivating this healing potential is what we are meant to do. Perhaps this is why it is the spiritual dimension of the medical encounters I have had with patients and families over the last 25 years that I have found most awe-inspiring, moving, and meaningful. The spiritual moments are when we connect human to human, and when I personally feel most deeply connected to the calling to be of service. On this particular day in the automotive department of a discount store, Mr. B reminded me once again just how true this is.


Mark Pettus, MD, FACP, is a graduate of Boston University and the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He completed his postdoctoral training in internal medicine and nephrology at Harvard Medical School, and is author of The Savvy Patient: The Ultimate Advocate for Quality Health Care and It’s All In Your Head: Change Your Mind, Change Your Health. www.savvypatient.com

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the November 2007 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.