the healing power of prayer.

This story was written by PARKER LEE NASH, Staff Writer, of the News & Record Online. Copyright Greensboro News & Record, Inc. It is very interesting and needs to be read by the largest possible audience.

The healing power of prayer/11-29-98
By PARKER LEE NASH, Staff Writer

Baptists and Buddhists bowed their heads in different countries, prayed to different gods and healed strangers lying in Durham hospital beds.

It happened this year.

Duke University doctors, studying nontraditional influences on healing, lumped about 20 heart patients into a "prayer group." The patients didn't know it, but their names were listed on prayer requests sent to places like Nepal, Jerusalem and Baltimore, where people of different faiths prayed for their recovery.

Those prayers worked, doctors say. Patients in the "prayer group" performed 50 to 100 percent better than patients who weren't the prayer targets.

Results of the study -- and others from around the country -- are jolting the traditional medical establishment, where prayer has long been tagged a medical taboo.

Just a few years ago, medical researchers who hinted about supernatural influences in their work risked being branded loons. That's changing quickly as scientists at highly regarded institutions like Duke and Harvard University are linking prayer and health through scientific tests.

The American Medical Association is even budging from its naysaying stance. Its directors still warn against an "outbreak of irrationalism," but they conceded recently that more research into the healing power of prayer is needed.

All the scientific research in the world, though, won't prove anything new to a small, devoted group of folks in Greensboro's medical community. They, and many of their patients, have believed for a long time that, simply put, prayer can heal.

Doctors had given up hope for a Greensboro woman whose body gave out after colon surgery. Her family agreed to take her off life support. Then they made one more decision -- to pray.

They asked Hobson Bryant, a physician's assistant at Moses Cone Memorial Hospital, to join them. Bryant's Christian faith and unwavering belief in the healing power of prayer are well-known at the hospital.

He joined the family in prayers to save the woman, if that was the Lord's will.

The next morning, unhooked from the tubes that had kept her alive a day before, the woman was still alive. The hospital staff was thrilled but stumped. No one expected the woman to survive. She lived another four years.

"The woman's family and I are comfortable in our spirits that the power of prayer turned her around," Bryant said.

Bryant says a lot of times, the power of prayer is in the asking. God doesn't always grant a prayer's wish but he always listens, Bryant said, and just having that spiritual connection is a healing experience.

"If you believe, if you believe God is with you, that your medicines are going to help you, then that's the beginning of the healing process," he said.

Bryant works in Moses Cone's emergency room. When folks come in contact with him, they're usually in a lot of pain and many are petrified.

So it's not unusual, he thinks, that some patients -- even the self-professed nonbelievers -- ask Bryant to pray with or for them.

"There are no atheists in a foxhole," Bryant quips.

God works in mysterious ways, the saying goes. And Bryant is a believer.

One day recently, he had this awful, nagging feeling he should visit a patient who is also a fellow church member. They both attend St. James Baptist Church, where members had been praying for the woman's recovery from heart-related problems.

"In fact, a group at the church had just been praying for her that day, I found out later," said Bryant. "I couldn't get peace. Something told me I had to go visit her right then."

When Bryant walked into the woman's room, she was groggy. He immediately noticed that her IV was hooked to the wrong drip. Someone had made a mistake. The woman could have died, Bryant said, if he hadn't found her so quickly and fixed her IV.

"I was sent to her," Bryant said. "I know prayer works."

Long before Duke University's prayer study, which made headlines around the world recently, other studies at less-revered institutions showed that prayer can be a significant healing factor. Believers like Bryant, and a group of Greensboro doctors who meet regularly for prayer sessions, point to those studies as anecdotal -- if not scientific -- proof of prayer's power.

The first major study that looked at prayer and its healing effects was published in 1988 in the Southern Medical Journal. Dr. Randy Bird, a cardiologist at the University of California, followed the progress of 393 patients with chest pain and heart trouble. He divided them into two groups. One was prayed for. One was not.

Three people in the prayed-for group required treatment with antibiotics, compared to 17 patients in the group not targeted with prayers. Those who were prayed for also used respirators less and suffered fewer instances of congestive heart failure.

Studies since then also have shown that prayer seems to work, even when the prayers are offered up from far away places and from people of different faiths, as in the Duke study.

Dr. Elisabeth Targ, a psychiatrist at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, recruited 40 AIDS patients for a study and found that half who received prayers -- from places as far away as Alaska and Puerto Rico -- required fewer hospitalizations and doctor's visits.

In two similar studies this year involving another set of AIDS patients, Targ recorded significantly better health in patients who received prayers than in patients who didn't.

"We don't know how it works," Targ says. "But it's obviously time to do experiments to answer that question. Clearly, it implies that people are more connected to each other than we would ordinarily think."

A big question researchers are grappling with is how prayers from people of different faiths living thousands of miles away from each other still seem to work. They connect through some spiritual force, apparently, but proving what that force is could be scientifically impossible.

The connection is no mystery to Dr. Spencer Tilley, a Greensboro cardiologist, who often prays with his patients. People are bound to each other through their relationship with God, he says. Although Tilley can't explain how the God worshipped by Christians handles prayers from people of other religions, he believes those prayers are heard.

Tilley is a regular member of the local physician's prayer group, about 30 strong, which meets quarterly to pray together and discuss the latest scientific findings and medical journal reports linking prayer to healing.

A fresh copy of the Duke prayer study now is part of Tilley's growing collection of papers documenting prayer's power.

He, like the Duke scientists who conducted the study, stresses that its results are "interesting scientifically but not conclusive."

Only 150 people were involved in the study, a statistically small number. And of those, only 20 were prayed for systematically. Other patients underwent different experimental healing methods, such as touch therapy. Those patients also healed quicker than patients who received no kind of special healing therapies. Patients in the prayer group, however, healed faster and easier than patients in all the other groups.

Plans for a bigger, more statistically sound 1,500 patient study are under way at Duke, and like the last study, it will be performed in conjunction with the Durham Veteran's Administration Medical Center. Hospitals in San Diego, Washington, D.C., and Oklahoma City also will be involved.

Large-scale studies like the one planned by Duke cardiologist Mitchell Krucoff, who conducted the smaller prayer study, and others under way at Harvard University could legitimize concepts about prayer that until recently were discounted outright by many doctors and scholars.

And they could bolster doctors like Tilley, who pray in their practices every day.

In the middle of a difficult heart operation last week, Tilley took a moment and asked God to guide his hands.

The surgery was a success. Tilley believes God answered his prayer.

"I try my best to offer superb medical care," said Tilley. "But it would be very frustrating if I thought the outcome was always in my hands."

To him, prayer is just a simple word for the act of linking up with God.

Through a prayer link, he and many of his patients find peace. Sometimes, they also find answers. But if prayers aren't answered, then folks must have faith that God has bigger and better plans for them, Tilley said.

"God just doesn't heal everybody who's prayed for," he said. "If prayer always worked like that, nobody would ever die."

When Jack Morris, a patient of Tilley's, was being prepped for emergency open heart surgery recently, he was too scared to pray. Morris is a Baptist preacher, but he was so panicked that the words just wouldn't come.

Tilley could sense his patient's anxiety.

He asked Morris if they could pray together.

They did, asking God for strength and peace. Afterward, Tilley leaned down and whispered in Morris's ear: "God is in control of your life, Jack, and whatever happens is his will."

"That simply gave me peace," Morris said. The surgery was successful.

Peace. It's prayer's greatest reward, Tilley said.

A 90-year-old patient of Tilley's felt that peace when she died recently.

"She couldn't see and she couldn't hear," Tilley said. "She was ready to go to heaven."

Tilley prayed with the woman at her bedside that God would take her.

"She was at perfect peace when she died," Tilley believes.

The head of a special committee to encourage prayer at Westover Church, Tilley knows a lot of folks, and even some churchgoers, doubt prayer's power. But to them, and to anybody who doubts, Tilley says this: "If you're getting good medical care, what does it hurt to have somebody praying for you?"

Dr. Joseph Narins, a Greensboro gynecologist and obstetrician, sees his practice as a ministry. In addition to treating their medical needs, he watches each patient for what he calls "faith flags."

These are questions he asks patients, or comments they offer without prompting, that give him insight into their belief structure.

"Were you raised in the church?" he might ask, during routine patient evaluations. "Where are you spiritually?"

Some patients, he admits, think the questions are strange. Some find them intrusive. But Narins doesn't understand that.

"What? I can ask somebody how many sexual partners they've had, but I can't ask them where they are spiritually?" he said.

He doesn't push his beliefs on patients, he said, but if they want to talk about God or their spirituality, Narins makes time.

It's part of his ministry.

Narins' examination rooms are filled with Christian and inspirational wall hangings. On the tables are Christian magazines. Narins wears a lapel pin on his white doctor's coat that says "Trust in the Lord," and he carries a book of Bible verses in his right, front pocket.

Sometimes, he pulls the book out and recites a phrase. Other times, he prays with his patients or, more often, he prays for them after they leave.

Narins also prays each time he delivers a baby. When a child is born with a deformity or an illness, Narins doesn't pretend to understand why, he says. But he tries to help the parents see, and believe as he does, that "God has a reason for it."

God answers all prayers that are sincere, Narins believes, but often people don't like the answer they get.

"God's answer to prayers is either 'yes, no or wait,'" he said. "Most people don't want to hear the 'wait' or the 'no.' But when God says that, he has something better planned."

Narins has seen it happen time and again. Couples come to him, frustrated that they can't have a child. They pray, and they pray some more, and they ask him to pray to God to bring them a child.

It doesn't happen.

Then months later, sometimes years, they have a baby.

"They invariably say, 'You know, it is better that we didn't have this baby earlier. We're in a much better place in our life right now.'" Narins said. "God knows that."

Prayer is no substitution for excellent medical care, Narins said, but patients who think they're only seeing the doctor when they visit his office are mistaken.

"I do the best I can," he says, "but I don't work alone."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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