Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Tense Moment: When a Patient Wants You to Pray With Them.

One day on rounds, (the time when everyone on a particular rotation, med students, residents, and the attendings or the boss, walk around and see every patient on that particular service) I had an attending (my boss) ask me what my religion was.  This was all sparked by a patient we had just seen that talked up God so much, that I'm not really sure why she was in the hospital.  She made it seem like he was doing everything to help her, and we, mere mortals were just giving her a place to sleep other than her own bed. As you could have guessed, I'm on open Atheist, and so I answered my attending by telling him so.

You should have seen his face.

A mixture of surprise, disappointment, and anger.  He started to turn red and began a rant about how could I possibly think I was going to be a good physician if I don't have God in my life.  I listened attentively but said nothing, until he asked:

"What would you do if that patient we just saw had asked you to pray with her? Huh? Are you going to disappoint her?"

He got more than he bargained for with this question.  I replied:

"Of course not, I would have no problem praying with her.  Afterall, it's not against my religion to pray, and it doesn't harm me at all, but if it has a possibility of helping one of my patients feel better or more comfortable, I would have no problem doing it."

It was my turn for a question. My attending was obviously devoutly Catholic, as he made this fact known practically every day.  So, I asked him:

"What would you do if a patient asked you to pray with them and they were Buddhist?  What if they were Jewish?  What if they were Muslim and they asked you to get down on a prayer mat after washing your hands and feet and praying with them because it would make them feel better.  Would you?"

He did not appreciate this questioning at all.  First off, attendings are the ones that are used to asking all the questions.  Residents and medical students rarely question attendings, it's all part of the culture of medical education.  My attending seemed angry and flustered, but eventually answered that

"Of course I wouldn't, it would be against my religion!"

I smiled, and was content with this interaction.  It was good for me, because it made me more confident that I could assert myself and my beliefs, or lack there of, but more importantly, it taught everyone that had watched this interaction something as well.  It taught them that Atheist does not mean "religion hating" or "intolerant".  I in fact was far more tolerant of other religions than my attending.
If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm not actually against religion.  Do they get on my nerves sometimes? yes. Does it cause a great deal of strife across and within cultures? Yes.  But I also know that some people need religion as their crutch.  If they have nothing else, it is what gets them through their day, their illness, their life.  Who am I to take that away?  I support religion so long as it doesn't harm or infringe upon others.  That is where I draw the line, and I defend that line vehemently.

Take care, and I hope everyone has a wonderful week.

-The Atheist Physician.


  1. I don't think it's possible to love this entry more than I already do. Bravo!

    1. Love, love, love this. I cringe whenever people thank god for the miracles that science provides them. Especially the barren couple, after multiple rounds of IVF, who finally welcome a baby into this world and the first person they thank is god. Geez, if god wanted you to have a child you wouldn't have needed science's help.

  2. I saw a photo the other day and it had a picture of a surgeon on it. The photo stated: "spent the last 12 hours in surgery, and they thank God." It does bother me a little when patients seem to discount the work that their health care team has done to help them. I just try to keep in mind that if they have nothing else, and God is the most important part of their life, and it's what keeps them going, why would I expect them to leave God out of their medical problems. If they think he's there in all of their other aspirations, why wouldn't he be there for this situation too. Now I usually resort to simply smiling and saying nothing when they attribute how well they are doing to God. I admit that what I really want to say is that God really had nothing to do with you getting better, but some fights are just set up to be unfair. In these circumstances, I'm the physician, the authority. It's like beating up a little kid. I save these sort of battles for when the isn't a power differential, or when I'm the "little guy."

    Thank you for your comment, I truly do appreciate the feedback, and I hope you'll continue to read my blog every now and again. Take care!