Columns_EnglishEnglish Page

Faith and Healing 

By Tam Sivathasan

Some 20 odd years ago on a midsummer day in Toronto I got a call from a friend that his sister was in Sunnybrook hospital and wanted to know if I wanted to visit. The call was so distraught that I didn’t want to pursue asking more questions except for the ward number she was admitted to. It didn’t take much time before I got to the hospital and there she was, lying in the bed with an oxygen mask and other paraphernalia attached.

Raji (not her real name), immediately recognized me and motioned to sit beside her on the bed. At the bottom of the bed there were two or three men sitting with open bibles and praying. The air was sad, and I sensed something severe had happened. I looked for her family members and none were in the scene. Luckily the doctor who was on his round entered the ward. After checking and ticking some charts he walked out and I followed him. “Doctor, I am a family member of the patient. How is the prognosis; is there any treatment planned?” I asked. After a brief pause, he looked at me and said “sorry, there won’t be any more treatment for her; she will be moved to a palliative care ward”. The doctor simply followed his protocol, I guess. 

When I returned to the ward Raji asked “what did the doctor say, anna?” I wasn’t ready for a question like that from her. I looked briefly at those people who were praying and replied ” Jesus won’t let you down, Raji; be strong”. She smiled and nodded in agreement.

The Raji I know was a devout Hindu. She was in her early thirties, married to a wonderful husband and adored by two young kids. In the state Raji was in I could understand her choice. Faith is a type of therapy that helps people release physical, mental, or emotional stress, and cope with anxiety. 

Later I found out Raji was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer which had become metastatic to the level of stage four. There was no more treatment, except for the administration of pain medication. Raji’s beautiful long wavy hair had started to give way due to her earlier chemo treatment. She was given a choice of going home to have some quality time with the family or to go to a hospice. The family held back from telling her the truth but the doctors insisted otherwise. Eventually Raji took the option to go home. 3 weeks to 3 months was her time, as per her doctors.

A few months passed, and Raji was still alive and ‘getting better’. She regained her full head of hair according to her brother.

December came and I thought of giving her a visit. On Christmas eve I went to her house with a gift basket. When I rang the bell, a kid opened the door. Raji was running down the circular stairway wearing a beautiful saree with her hair in a bun at the top of her head. She was completely transformed to her former self and it was truly astonishing. What happened? Has she beaten cancer?

Raji went on to live almost another full year. She died the following year due to another medical complication, her sister told me later.

*****

Giovanna is a smart Italian lady I happened to encounter during a real estate home viewing. Pregnant Giovanna was rocking in a chair while holding another child, who was probably 7 at that time. I went down to the basement for a quick look. While there I noticed a small picture of Sai Baba, considered a saint to many of his devotees, stuck on the fridge door. Upon coming up I asked her “have you been renting the basement to any ‘Indian tenants’?”. 

“No, why would you ask that question?” she asked. When I mentioned Sai Baba’s picture on the fridge Giovanna started laughing, hysterically. “It’s funny that you asked. No, I am a devotee of Sai Baba. I bet you want to know why” she said.

“Of course I am curious,” I said to her.

“When I was studying at York University I was diagnosed with cancer. I was four months pregnant at that time, with her” she said, pulling the girl close to her. “The doctors gave me two choices. Either treat the cancer which will kill the fetus, or carry through the full term without treatment and face the consequence. Being distraught, I approached a girl in my class with my dilemma. She introduced me to Sai Baba saying she had heard Baba did miracles. I started going to bajans. To everyone’s surprise the cancer had disappeared and here she is, 7 now.”

Dumbstruck, I wished her good luck and left.

*****

The above two stories convinced me into exploring more of the mystery of faith and healing. Can science offer any explanation? Can the practice of prayer and gestures elicit divine intervention in spiritual and physical healing? The American Cancer Society states “available scientific evidence does not support claims that faith healing can actually cure physical ailments”. I could not fully agree with that, especially after reading some books on neurology.

I read a few books on this subject, some of which were by Dr. Norman Doidge; the notable one is ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’. Our brain, due to its plastic nature, can rewire itself to perform tasks that are warranted by various needs. While researchers are still learning about the potential functions of the brain it is well known that the overall control of physical health is performed by two important parts, namely the hypothalamus and pituitary glands, which in turn control the entire endocrine system that secretes various hormones into our bloodstream. Some of these hormones can ‘manipulate’ the gut microbes into identifying and killing pathogens, including some cancer cells, that are deemed harmful to our health.

Now, what has faith got to do with all this, you may ask. Faith should not be construed with religion, I should warn. Faith, to me, is to be treated like a placebo, the kind of sugar pill that some physicians prescribe. The ‘placebo effect’ is when a person’s physical or mental health appears to improve after taking a placebo or ‘dummy’ treatment. Placebo is Latin for ‘I will please’ and refers to a treatment that appears real, but is designed to have no therapeutic benefit.

Prolonged stress puts our body in a continuous state of readiness for physical action. When our body has no time to re-establish equilibrium, it becomes overworked and our immune system weakens, making us susceptible to sickness. Previous research among HIV-infected individuals suggests that spiritual well-being is inversely related to psychological distress and rates of disease progression. Use of a mantram (மந்திரம்), a spiritual word or phrase (பஜனை) repeated frequently and silently throughout the day, has been associated with decreased psychological distress and increased spiritual well-being.

Could Giovanna and Raji fit into these moulds? Could their faith, right or wrong, have reduced their stress and anxiety and influenced their immune system to produce their desired results? I do not know, but I would definitely thank Jesus and Sai Baba for being timely placebos. 

(This article was first published in the Accountants’ magazine – 2023) (Photo by William Farlow on Unsplash)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *