The Tebowing Neurosurgeon

So, after successfully matching and a relatively awesome weekend, things are starting to calm down a bit and I’m hoping to blog a bit more. (I have said this before …)

The Atlantic recently ran a piece about a neurosurgeon who “2-Corinthianed” an atheistic patient before taking him to the OR, dropping a lot of “jesus-this” and “christ-that”. The post concludes “It was wrong for that neurosurgeon to preach at his patient’s bedside without first inquiring about his patient’s spirituality.” To me this seems like much ado about nothing.

I have several very religious (non-physician) friends who have explicitly told me that they will pray for me (for instance, during the match week) or for my family. Frankly, even though we don’t share common religious beliefs, I don’t mind. They are going to pray anyway, and for them, prayer is one expression of love and friendship, so hey – I send flowers, they talk to JC. I’m grateful to them for that expression of friendship. For what it’s worth, apparently the professor had a similarly bemused reaction.

I have only been on the receiving end of requests for prayer, which I accepted even though the patients often said things that I don’t theologically agree with. While I tell the patients that I’m happy for any help that I can get, the truth is that I agree to these requests solely out of respect for the patient and because their spiritual and mental strength may have some positive effect on their outcome. Lastly, (given that the patient and I have made the decision to have an operation) anything that will steady their nerves on the day is a win-win.

I do think that in a perfect world of rainbows and unicorns, the neurosurgeon could have developed a better routine for this situation. One might imagine a perfect surgeon saying something like “Faith is an important part of my life and I pray several times each day. I am going to pray now and you are welcome to join me.” followed by a short pause to allow objections, followed by the prayer du jour.

Although I think that there could be some grossly overbearing theists out there, for the most part I find these gestures to be benign. It is not my personal style to Tebow at the bedside, but I think we have bigger things to worry about in healthcare than these well-intentioned gestures of faith. Maybe an aspiring Christopher Hitchens out there can comment and disagree, but given that our life and time is finite, I would rather invest in better communication in counseling patients regarding indications for surgery, risks, benefits and alternatives, rather than prayer styles.

If I’m ever on the other side and a physician wants to “2-Corinthians” me, I would nod, smile, and be grateful for their well wishes.

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2 Responses to The Tebowing Neurosurgeon

  1. Rachel says:

    Would you feel the same way if a Jehovah’s witness were given a blood transfusion or transplant while unconscious? The coercion is equal. It’s okay for patients to ask doctors to pray with them, though it potentially puts the doctor in an awkward position. It is not ok for doctors to pray over patients, uninvited. An atheist has as much right to have their choice non-belief honored as a theist does to have theirs honored.

    If a patient wants prayer, a chaplain is the most appropriate choice.

    Frankly, I would have asked for a different surgeon.

    Maybe you’re stating a “controversial” opinion for the page hits. I don’t know.

    • Thanks for the comment! Glad to hear your thoughts.

      I think it depends on what the content of the prayer is. I have no idea precisely what the physician said (the article doesn’t say), and I could imagine some very offensive or inappropriate prayers.

      However, I don’t understand your analogy to JW’s and blood transfusions:

      1. The patient was conscious – not unconscious – and therefore capable of refusing. A physician should not pray with or at the bedside of a patient who requests the physician not to do so (for any reason).

      2. The physician did not ask the patient to do anything or participate in any way. A physician should not force a patient to participate in prayer.

      3. The prayer did not violate the person’s religious beliefs. Atheists do not believe that another person’s prayer has any effect on them whatsoever (other than consuming some of the O2 in the room).

      If you want an atheist surgeon, that is your prerogative. People request surgeons for many different reasons. This patient notes that they decided to keep the surgeon despite the prayer because they trusted the surgeon.

      As I said in my post, I think this issue should be handled in a vastly different way by the surgeon. I think it is sad that people are outraged by a surgeon who prays for them but tolerate surgeons who do not involve them in the medical aspects of their decisionmaking. Maybe you are not part of this latter group, but I see it all too often.

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