Special Issue: Religion, Healing, and Public Health

Personal Histories

An exercise in (re)discovery

What Do You Believe In?
Special, Guest-Edited Issue on Religion, Healing, ad Public Health

"You can't hide from religion in Georgia. If you don't go after it with a positive agenda, it will come after you."
Gary Gunderson, Director, Interfaith Health Program

"To understand our patients fully, we need to understand their beliefs, or we will not be effective as their healers."
Lori Arviso Alvord, Assistant Professor of Surgery and Associate Dean for Student Affairs, Dartmouth Medical School

New Perspectives on Health and Healing
Can Science and Religion Work Together?

An integrated exploration
A three-pronged approach to health, healing, and spirituality

A cross-cultural perspective
P. Venugopala Rao, Associate Professor of Physics

Mrs. Bradley's body
Carla Gober, Registered Nurse and Doctoral Candidate, Graduate Division of Religion

Spirituality and Modern Medicine
Science on a wing and prayer?

Between Patient and Healer
Four anthropological observations

Return to Contents

At first, it made all of us uncomfortable. But it quickly became clear that sitting in front of a small group of colleagues from across the university and reading out loud your own personal history—your own journey and the roles science, medicine, healing, and religion played in it—was an intriguing, moving, enlightening, and often surprising exercise. We had rediscovered something we lost in college or, for many scientists especially, something we had never discovered in the first place—a piece of why we were the way we were and why we studied the things we did. We have done this in a number of faculty seminars in science and religion over the years, and we used the technique in undergraduate courses as well. In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been surprised, but as academics, this type of thinking had been trained out of us. The exercise proved the easiest, most revealing, and most effective way to connect people from the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Here, to give you a sense of these statements, P.V. Rao, a physicist, and Carla Gober, a woman of many degrees currently pursuing another in religion, were kind enough to share theirs (meant to be read aloud) from our most recent faculty seminar.—Arri Eisen

Mrs. Bradley's Body

By Carla Gober, Registered Nurse and Doctoral Candidate, Graduate Division of Religion

This is a story that both influenced me personally and began to shape the culture of the hospital where I was working in the early 1990s.

One morning on medical rounds I lingered with the medical team at Room 1. It was nothing unusual. A sixty-four-year-old male was in an automobile accident, in for observation and traction. I would have thought nothing of it, except that a nurse leaned over to me and whispered, “Apparently, his wife called out to him for help, but he was pinned by the car and couldn’t move. She died in the ER. He doesn’t talk much.” She asked if I could try and talk with him. It was not particularly my role as a clinical nurse specialist, but I stayed behind as the team went to the next room.

Mr. Bradley faced the ceiling as I inquired whether there was something we could do for him. I remember wondering whether my question seemed either empathetic or meaningless. He nodded: there was something we could do for him. I was surprised. I waited, but he continued to stare at the ceiling in silence. I asked if he was uncomfortable and whether he needed his nurse. He shook his head no. Suddenly, it seemed like a guessing game, and I did not know where to go next. Knowing about his wife’s death, but not wanting to address it directly, I asked him if he needed something of a psychological nature. He shook his head no again. I waited, thinking carefully over the next question.

“Is there something spiritual we could do for you?”

For the first time he spoke: “Yes, you can bring back my wife.”

I felt a jolt in my stomach. It was the one thing I could not do. I leaned over the railing desperately trying to imagine what I was going to say next. As I got closer to the scruffy face and tired eyes, I noticed how old he looked for sixty-four and how utterly defeated he seemed for a man who had survived. What came next surprised even me. I whispered, “If you thought it might be possible to see the body of your deceased wife and say good-bye, would you want the opportunity?”

His face turned, and his eyes stared straight into mine. Without blinking he replied, “Yes.”

As I left his room, I noticed his physician walk into another patient’s room. I followed the physician and asked if I could talk with him when he was done with the current patient. He stated that he would not have time later, but could talk right then (in front of the other patient). Even though I suggested that it would be better to talk outside the room, he insisted that I discuss it there. I tell this part of the story not to emphasize resistances, but to illustrate how difficult it can be to address certain aspects of hospital culture. Because of his insistence and my fear that it was the only opportunity I would have, I said Mr. Bradley, in Room 1, wanted to see his wife.

Suddenly realizing the implications of what I had just said, the physician asked me to wait outside the room. When he joined me, the physician went from being horrified to coming up with an unusual solution. Because Mr. Bradley was in traction, he wanted to have a mirror placed over Mr. Bradley’s bed to enable him to view his wife’s body—if we could prevent the cremation process. The physician proceeded to the next patient without another word. I made a phone call.

A female voice answered the phone, and I tried to explain that we wanted the body of Mrs. Bradley sent back to the hospital. The woman suggested that the body was about to be cremated and that my request was unusual (according to her it had never been done). The rest of the conversation was about various difficulties, but one particular thing the woman said stands out in my mind. She said the body belonged to them.

My professional ability to remain distanced fell from me like a shell, leaving only raw emotion. I suggested that the body more accurately belonged to God or Mr. Bradley, rather than to her or to me. Without further discussion, the woman said she would do what she could to prevent the cremation and return the body to the hospital.
This is the end of my personal part of this story. The rest of the medical staff took over from this point. Mrs. Bradley’s body was returned to the hospital. While the mirror was set up for Mr. Bradley
to view her body, the physician decided to discharge him early so that he could attend the funeral to see and say good-bye to his wife. Mr. Bradley changed his mind about having her body cremated. Instead, after the funeral, her body was buried.

This is a story with a beginning and a middle, but I am not sure where the end is. After telling Mr. Bradley what we hoped would be possible, I never saw him again. I thought it ended for me when I heard he had attended her funeral, but in later reflection, I became more aware of how transformative his story has been for me. Being his advocate for thirty minutes had changed me—and is still changing me.

Certainly, the story in relationship to the hospital did not end with
Mr. Bradley’s discharge. It advanced discussions around how to approach death and dying and other spiritual issues more comprehensively, as a medical team. Since that time, a comprehensive program of education around spiritual issues has been developed at this hospital. This story has been taped and is now used as one of the teaching tools in this educational program.
And for Mr. Bradley, I suspect that attending his wife’s funeral was only another beginning—one he defined as a spiritual need.