Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 66(2) May 2016
The Spirituality of Healing:
Transparencies of a Positive-Minded
Nicol Nixon Augusté, PhD
In this reflective narrative, Nicol Nixon Augusté PhD writes from her perspective as a patient who experiences a multi-surgeon neck surgery that involved the removal of both a submandibular salivary gland and a thyroid gland. She discusses her exploration of the relationship between her Catholic faith, the surgical plan, and her healing process. Via this experiential development (one that included asking her surgeons to talk to her during the surgery), she discovered the aspects of becoming a positive-minded patient: listening to her body, creating relationships with her surgeons, and taking specific actions to promote successful healing.
Catholic faith, healing, spirituality, body, surgery, surgeons, post-surgical healing, support
Hebrews 11. When I regained consciousness from serious neck surgery a couple of weeks ago, this Holy Scripture appeared before my eyes. I kept the book and chapter in my memory, and looked to my left where my husband André smiled with relief as he held my hand. A couple of days later, after returning home from the hospital, I studied Chapter 11 from The letter to the Hebrews, and learned that this chapter highlights the faith of many of the key figures found in the Bible: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets. These ancients were “well attested” because of their faith or “realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen”.  (Hebrews 11:1-2) After my study, I realized that this same God was speaking to me, confirming my faith in the Holy Spirit, in my surgeons, and in my recovery.
The ancients were “well attested” because of their faith or “realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen”
My faith in these areas as well as my steadfast Catholic belief in Jesus Christ as Healer has greatly contributed to moulding me into a positive-minded patient. This role has taught me to pay close attention to the mind, body, spirit connection during the pre-surgical, surgical, and postsurgical processes. And because of these beliefs and my recent experience, I intend to explore the spirituality of healing through living as a positive-minded patient. The most transparent, significant areas that have helped me to grow into this type of patient during this entire spiritual process - and the ones that I will investigate in terms of health and healing - include listening to my body, having faith in my surgeons, and taking specific actions to promote a successful surgery and future healing.
Sensing the speaking body
One transparent trait of being a positive-minded patient is listening to the body. Believing that my body does speak to me has served as a spiritual experience, one that has contributed to my decision-making processes. In The four levels of healing: A guide to balancing the spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical aspects of life, Shakti Gawain addresses the inner awareness that our bodies hold: “The truth is, we are born with a natural awareness of our bodies’ needs and feelings, but we’ve learned to tune the body out, either ignoring it or controlling it with our mental ideas about what’s good for it . . . the body has to get sick in order to get our attention”. 2(71). In my case, although my surgeons could not give me a concrete answer as to why I had developed the large stone in my submandibular salivary gland and an even larger and more serious nodule in my thyroid gland, I knew in my spirit that I had stopped listening to my body along the way somewhere. To listen to the body is to understand that the entire body works together as a whole. Once the patient appreciates that there exists more to the body than just the physical, these other areas can be searched; and, through this exploration, the cause of the illness or slow rate of recovery may be revealed, commencing true healing. Gawain takes a very holistic approach in viewing the mind/body/spirit connection:
Our physical body is where all the other levels - the spiritual, mental, and emotional aspects of our being - reside in this life. Our bodies mirror and express our state of well-being or lack thereof on all the levels. A block or imbalance on the spiritual, mental, or emotional level eventually shows up in the physical body. So not only is the body constantly communicating its own needs, it is frequently trying to communicate the needs of the other levels as well. 2 (pp75-76)
Grasping Gawain’s idea, then, allows for a re-examination of the spiritual, mental, and emotional aspects of life in order to help assist in the physical healing of the body or to detect when it is time to see a physician or healer.
One avenue of listening to our bodies is through dreams. This spiritual state can provide valuable information regarding how to move forward with decisions regarding illness, physicians, surgery, healing, and therapy. Jeremy Spiegel’s text The mindful medical student: A psychiatrist’s guide to staying who you are while becoming who you want to be discusses the importance of dream interpretation. He declares that the process of dream interpretation can be quite enlightening. He posits:
When interpreting a dream, it is customary to first look at how it unfolds, noting its contents, and then find personal meaning in its special effects . .. you will likely discover some of the intrapsychic effects Freud describes in Interpretation of Dreams, especially condensation, displacement, repetition, and wish fulfillment. 3(109)
For these purposes, I am concerned with wish fulfillment. Spiegel defines this type of intrapsychic effect as “the disclosure of a wish that the dreamer unconsciously wants realized” 3(111). A little over a week after my surgery, I was considering talking to my surgeons about stopping my prescribed pain medications, and moving to an over-the-counter pain reliever. I feared that the more narcotics I took, the more my body might want to take. That night I dreamt that God told me to go to visit my surgeons. As the dream developed, I found myself facing my two main Ear, Nose, and Throat surgeons. In the scene, they told me: “if you feed it, it will grow.” I knew they were warning me. When I woke up, I immediately knew that the “it” in my dream was my body’s non-legitimate need for pain medication. I knew that in order to prevent my body from craving a false sense of security, I needed to starve that need. Also, even though God is my ultimate source, I still needed to consult with my ENT about this decision—as Gawain states “we need to see our helping professionals not as the ultimate authority, but as guides assisting us along our path of healing” 2(84). The morning after my dream I contacted my ENT about the matter; he agreed, permitting me to move to the OTC pain medication. After that phone call, I stopped giving my body the narcotics, and, within a day, killed the urge to take any pain medication at all.
The spiritual experience of healing not only involves listening to the body, but also requires having faith in the surgeon’s ability to care for the ailing body as well as the person residing within that body. The surgeon who cares about the patient in addition to the treating the illness is the one that recognizes the connection between healing and treating the whole person. Bernie Siegel avows in his “Forword” to Spiegel’s text that “a caring doctor means something in our world, because empathy and compassion are choices” 4(v). This could not be more accurate in my case. I completely trust my primary ENT. I trust him not only because he attends my parish, but also because he is a caring, accomplished physician and surgeon. At the start of every visit, he always asks how my life is going: my volunteer work, my career, my stresses, my creative outlets, my overall health. So when he told me that I needed a CT to look more closely at a salivary stone I had developed, I was completely compliant. Then, when he called to tell me about a larger, more immediate concern found on the CT - the substantial nodule on my thyroid - his voice sounded honestly concerned, yet very peaceful. Again, his composed, confident tone prompted me to be calm. In addition, I felt that the nodule discovery served as a providential event. Had my ENT surgeon not been concerned enough for me as his patient, I would not have had the CT, and the nodule would still be growing at an alarming rate - possibly causing a future deleterious health problem.
Another area that helps to promote faith in surgeons is the process of building of a personal relationship between patient and surgeon(s) prior to surgery. A strong, positive relationship can truly aid both patient and surgeon in their approach and attitude toward the surgical and healing processes. In his text Love, medicine and miracles: Lessons learned about self-healing from a surgeon’s experience with exceptional patients Bernie Siegel emphasizes:
Hope comes about largely as a result of the patient’s confidence and trust in the healer. This bond is forged in many ways. Certain essentials - compassion, acceptance, availability, a willingness to provide information - are obvious. That is why preoperative visits by the surgical team are so important. They not only help the patient through surgery but also speed recovery. 5(44)
Before surgery, both of my surgeons individually visited me in my small preoperative waiting room. My primary ENT stayed the longest, telling my husband and me how long the surgery would take, reviewing exactly how he and my other surgeon would work together, and that he would come see me right after the surgery. Then, he did something that I have never experienced with a surgeon: he asked if he could pray with us. We agreed, of course. He began praying that God would bless the entire surgery and asked that He place His hands on everyone involved. After the prayer, he left my husband and me to say our private “see-you-laters” before the nurses took me from the room. Then, to my surprise, as the nurses rolled me down to the operating room, there stood both of my ENT surgeons, waiting at the end of the hall; as I rolled past, they waved to me, telling me that I was going to do a great job. This last preoperative visit that occurred in the hallway gave me even more confidence that this surgery and the subsequent recovery would go extremely well.
Receiving a sense of reassurance is another factor that helps to grow faith and trust in a surgeon. In his book The midnight meal and other essays about doctors, patients, and medicine Jerome Lowenstein advocates for physicians to be more compassionate healers. He suggests that physicians and patients alike can find reward from a more humanistic approach to practicing medicine. He reflects on his previous experiences as a physician:
I have learned that the need for reassurance . . . calls for the physician to use his or her relationship with the patient, rather than a measured guarded assessment, to provide support. The more uncertain the future and the bleaker the prognosis, the greater is the need for the support that can come from knowing that an educated caring physician is fully committed to seeing them through their illness, in a word, “being there.” This is reassurance. 6(38-39)
Although my situation was not bleak, I did look for reassurance from my surgeons that all would be well, and that they would, as Lowenstein suggests, “be there.” I needed that human connection - and my surgeons gave it to me. During my first office visit to see my second ENT surgeon, he told me his narrative about the growing nodule on his thyroid. He said that although mine was much larger than his, he would not have any problem extracting it. He continued, explaining his entire process, from the upcoming aspiration biopsy procedure to post-surgical monitoring appointments, reassuring me that he would be there for the entire process. He even offered me a link to a website where I could watch the surgical technique being done. This conversation not only gave me peace about his knowledge and competency, but it also told me that he possessed the ability to sympathize because he, too, might face this same surgery one day.
Acts toward Holistic Healing
While listening to the body and having faith in my surgeons have helped me to recognize the spirituality of healing during this experience, I believe that certain transparent actions I have taken - creating a support system before surgery, asking my surgeons to speak to me during the surgery, and reflecting upon my life afterward - have genuinely helped me to stay positive, ensuring a strong recovery and future healthy lifestyle. As Siegel asserts, “just as negativity feeds on itself, so does the positive outlook of a survivor, and the body reflects the mind” 5(163). One of the first transparent steps I took toward becoming a positive-minded patient was to create a support system. Part of this support system included people I know that would place me on their church prayer lists. In his text Spirituality and the healthy mind: Science, therapy, and the need for personal meaning Marc Galanter states that “it might come as a surprise to many psychiatrists that a large majority (84%) of Americans believe that prayer for others can have a positive effect on their recovery from illness” 7(3). I am one of that 84 percent. Also, Galanter conducted a survey with the Christian Medical Association (CMA) and found that in large part “these Christian psychiatrists felt that the Bible and prayer should play a role in emotional healing” 7(114 115). As I stated above, I am a strong proponent of prayer. In fact, I tend to pray about a considerable amount of issues in my life from email communication and phone conversations to decisions about whom I allow to speak into my life and my career choices. Prayer served as a paramount part of my recovery. After my surgery, I discovered that I was on prayer lists across the United States that I did not even know about!
Another part of my support system includes my close friends. Marc Pilsuk and Susan Hillier Parks support the idea of friendships augmenting family support in their text The healing web: Social networks and human survival. They claim:
Informal networks of friends or voluntary support groups, and formal agency services are two sources of social support that complement family ties. A community setting that furnishes these additional supports provides the content necessary for families to meet the supportive needs of their members. 8(90)
Because I do not have family in the area, many of my close friends have acted as my family. For example, my friend, Mary, not only was on-call for me directly following my surgery, but she and her partner Marla also visited me when I returned home. I had experienced an allergic reaction to my antibiotic, and they sat with me - and brought me frozen yogurt for my physical body and a little stuffed animal for the emotional part of my body while my husband went to the store to purchase my new medication along with some other essentials. These types of relationships have not only helped my recovery process, but have also contributed to my spiritual growth, reminding me of Jesus’s judgment of the nations in Matthew 25:36: “For I was . . . ill and you cared for me” 1(995).
Another evident effort I made was asking my surgeons to speak to me and over me during the surgery. This was my only request; they agreed, though they assured me that I would not be able to hear them. I told them I understood that, but felt what happens in the operating room can affect the patient in positive and negative ways. As Siegel suggests: “Tell the surgeon to speak to you during surgery, honestly but hopefully, and also to repeat positive messages but absolutely avoid negative ones” 5(174). Ironically, I read this part of the book after my surgery, and was quite pleased that I had already taken an action that Siegel specifically instructs patients to take - this was a spiritual experience in itself for me, a confirmation from God that I had done what was right for me to do. The interesting part of this story is that one of my surgeons actually asked me if I could hear him during the surgery. A curious question from an accomplished surgeon, indeed his question told me that this experience had made him think. In my post-surgical euphoric haze, I smiled and told him “yes, of course!” And then laughed as best I could, telling him the truth: “No, but I felt completely calm (almost happy) and pain-free when I woke up.” After my response, he recounted everything he and my other surgeon spoke over me during surgery: how well I was doing, the removal of the each gland, and when it was over.
In addition to creating a support system and speaking to my surgeons, I have also made a distinct decision to re-evaluate my lifestyle. Even though I do not know the exact cause of my health issues, I can begin to look into the mental, spiritual, and emotional facets of my life and set some future healing goals. Walter Weston discusses the importance of leading our own lives in his book Healing yourself: A practical guide. He encourages readers:
You must learn to take charge of your life. Taking charge means making the needed changes that will bring you ongoing happiness and satisfaction . . . a crisis can eventually be recognized as a friend. It may tell you that you are not happy or satisfied. It may begin an inner search for what needs to be healed within you, such as painful memories, emotional trauma, anger, fear, sadness, or a sense of personal inadequacy . . .
It can lead to a closer relationship with God, transforming you into a stronger, wiser, more spiritual person. 9(37, 56)
Weston’s metaphor of crisis as friend is intriguing because normally we want to quickly move past the crises in our lives, placing them in that part of our forgotten past.
But his suggestion that they can help us figure out our present and lead to a more healthy future adds a new face to this negatively-held concept. From a more positive perspective, a crisis can allow me to better listen to my body, establishing a more fruitful relationship with it; Gawain suggests that “we need to make friends with our bodies and learn to acknowledge and appreciate how they serve us . . . Notice how much pleasure you derive from your physical sense: tasting food, watching a sunset, smelling the flowers, listening to music, receiving a massage” 2(74). Also, applying this new perspective on crisis to my decision to reevaluate my life means focusing on the aspects of life that grant me true enjoyment: my relationship with God, my marriage, and my service to others.
Two weeks into recovery, I now have a lot to reflect upon for the next several months. Looking at the spirituality of healing via learning to live as a positive-minded patient has changed my outlook on the field of medicine and how I approach illness and recovery. I now see how listening to my body, having faith in my surgeons, and taking tangible actions to assist me in the healing process can all be spiritual experiences that bring me closer to God.
This past weekend, I ventured out of the house and into my parish church. This was my first visit back to Mass after my surgery. It felt good to see everyone, to hear the Word, and to take the Eucharist again. Even more special, though, was that on this particular 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, my husband André sat beside me, smiling at me as he pointed to the second reading of the Mass: Hebrews 11.
Nicol Nixon Augusté is Professor of General Education at Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, GA 31410 firstname.lastname@example.org
- New American Bible for Catholics. New York: American Bible Society; 1991.
- Gawain, S. The four levels of healing: A guide to balancing the spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical aspects of life. Novato, CA: Natarai; 2000.
- Spiegel, J. The mindful medical student: A psychiatrist’s guide to staying who you are while becoming who you want to be. New Hanover, NH: Dartmouth CP; 2000.
- Siegal, B. Forward. The mindful medical student: A psychiatrist’s guide to staying who you are while becoming who you want to be. By Jeremy Spiegel. New Hano-ver, NH: Dartmouth CP; 2000.
- Siegel, B. Love, medicine and miracles: Lessons learned about self-healing from a surgeon’s experience with exceptional patients. New York: Harper and Row; 1986.
- Lowenstein, J. The midnight meal and other essays about doctors, patients, and medicine. New Haven: Yale UP; 1997.
- Galanter, M. Spirituality and the healthy mind: Science, therapy, and the need for personal meaning. Oxford: Oxford UP; 2005.
- Pilsuk, M., Hillier Parks, S. The healing web: Social networks and human survival. Hanover: UP of New England; 1986.
- Weston, W. Healing: A practical guide. Charlottesville: Hampton Roads; 1998.