Originally created 08/15/98

Health professionals see links between body, spirit



COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Spirituality is reappearing alongside science in some hospitals as caregivers recognize that the links between body and soul can mean better healing.

At one Upstate South Carolina hospital, there is the Emmanuel Unit, with its prayer and music, where doctors recognize that healing often is more than operations and IVs. At a Rock Hill hospital, there is Rapha -- from the Hebrew "to heal" -- that offers counseling based on psychology and theology.

There is a recognition that "spirituality itself is a part of health," said Mark Tompkins, a health policy researcher and associate professor at the University of South Carolina.

Mary Ann Robertson of Laurens, though weakened by cancer, confidently affirms the connection between body and spirit that she found at the Emmanuel Unit of St. Francis Hospital in Greenville

"I've not been afraid through any of this because I know God never leaves us. He's always by our side," she said recently.

Research has shown that religious people are less depressed, have healthier immune systems and deal better with addictions. A new Duke University study of 4,000 North Carolinians ages 65 and older found those who participated in religious activities were 40 percent less likely to have high blood pressure.

In a way, "one could say the church is in the health care business," said Paul Jersild, a professor and ethicist at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.

He and Robert McKeown, an ordained United Methodist minister and an epidemiologist at the University of South Carolina are helping to study connections between faith and health. The seminary and USC's School of Public Health have joined in a three-year national project funded by the Carter Center in Atlanta to find out what programs exist and which ones work best, and to develop ways of training religious and medical professionals accordingly.

For Robertson, 56, it has been a long road buoyed by faith in her God and in her doctors. "I get up some mornings and I think this could not have happened to me," she says.

Her story began in April with a night of abdominal pain, then gall bladder surgery and bad news from the biopsy: stomach cancer.

While taking radiation and chemotherapy, she learned of the Emmanuel Unit, which offers prayer alongside medical treatment. "Everyone was very attentive and very concerned," she said.

"The whole thing is about getting in touch with the mind-body-spirit," hospital spokeswoman Samantha Sinowitz said. And sometimes it's about something as simple as helping a patient relax.

"Fear can sometimes be worse than anything else," she said.

The 20-bed unit takes up half a floor at the downtown hospital. A chapel is available and nurses pause on their rounds to read Scripture and pray with patients. "That made a definite difference in your outlook," said Robertson, who also liked the music therapy.

"Live music can really help ... because of feelings of isolation when you're sick," said Linda Mattern, a certified music therapist who works part time at St. Francis.

Sometimes she plays a favorite hymn on a guitar. Other times it is soothing recorded music. It can help reduce blood pressure and take patients' minds off their pain.

At the Rapha program at Piedmont Medical Center in Rock Hill, the focus is "to look at a patient's value and self-worth in relationship to God," director David Dixon said. "God's the author of all healing. Sometimes he uses medication; sometimes he uses counseling."

Bringing God into the hospital setting is one avenue; sending nurses out into the community is another.

The Midlands Partnership for Community Health, which is affiliated with the four big hospitals in Columbia, hires registered nurses to work directly with pastors and congregations.

"It's paid off in getting people to work together with other denominations for overall health," said Kay Cover, who coordinates the parish nurse program.

The three full-time and one part-time nurse handle 20 churches, including 10 in the Swansea area, she said. They also work with the Columbia Housing Authority to provide health assessments and educational programs for elderly residents in public housing.

In a similar program, Congregational Health Ministries within the Greenville Hospital Systems, nearly two dozen nurses -- all unpaid volunteers -- have begun blood pressure screenings and health fairs in their local churches. They also offer educational programs on topics like living wills, organ donation and stress management.

"I've always believed you can't separate a person's physical body from their emotional and spiritual self," said the program's director, Deborah Flanagan, who is the wife of an Episcopal priest. "If one part of them is ill, the whole person will be ill."