What is Faith’s Place in Veterinary Medicine?

Do you include spiritual healing in your treatment plan?

Originally published in the December 2015 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

I’ve been crisscrossing these United States (along with many others) espousing the belief that the two bookends of today’s and tomorrow’s successful practice are high-quality veterinary care and compassion for and the emotional care of the pets that come to our practices. 

But I’m wondering if another ingredient is needed to create the perfect recipe of happy, healthy pets, pet owners and veterinary team members.

The special ingredient I speak of is not a mystery. In fact, it’s almost universally known and widely accepted across these United States. I’m talking about faith.

I’m far from a religious zealot. In fact, my basic practices fall woefully short as I’ve never read the entire Bible, there are days I don’t pray, and too often it’s “My will be done” vs. “Thy will be done.” In church I’m still in grade school when it comes to knowledge of scripture and I’ve never been asked to be in the choir, but I do love the time during the service when you get to greet your neighbor, as I love to hug the dozens of elderly widows at United Methodist Church in Bonners Ferry, Idaho.

But I have asked for my sins to be forgiven, accepted Christ as my savior and asked for his help countless times. Many of those times are in the trenches of veterinary medicine.

As I outlined in personal stories in a couple of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” pet books I co-authored, there are times I’ve done all I could medically for a pet, fully expected him to die, but against all odds the pet lived.

My only explanation for these pets’ recoveries from cancer, paralysis or kidney failure was prayer — mine, team members’ or the pet owners’ and their support group — and it’s the reason we often ask for “prayers and shares” for a specific pet with a specific condition from our 530,000-plus Facebook fans.

Again, we’ve seen miracles.

Faith often comes to the surface when it’s time to give a pet “final grace.” There are times I’ll tell the pet owner, “We’ve done everything we can do to help Sparky with science. Let’s also ask for help from above.”

No, we don’t see a miraculous recovery every time. But yes, we all feel better about the pet’s chances and that we’ve left no stone unturned in seeking a diagnosis, relief from pain or suffering, a successful treatment, a cure or a peaceful passing.

I’m on-my-knees sincere when I bring God into the treatment plan. I don’t force my beliefs on anyone else, but I’ve also only had one person that I know of take offense, ridicule the practice and leave as a result of it. So we’re about 5,000 to 1.

I end every exam with the simple word “blessings.” This is not the equivalent of “thanks” or “goodbye.” I mean it when I say “blessings” and they can include: may we come up with an accurate diagnosis, prognosis and treatment plan for your pet; may we relieve your pet’s pain or even cure it; may you, the pet owner, find health, happiness or a rich spiritual connection; even just have a great week.

I just read an article in Time magazine on “How Doctors Handle Faith.” It pointed out that many people who are legally bound to make medical decisions for a critically ill friend or loved one turn to faith for guidance. But when researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and Duke University analyzed recorded chats between such surrogates and health care workers in ICUs across America, they found that spirituality rarely came up.

When it did, doctors often changed the subject, possibly leaving the surrogates unsatisfied. Specifically:

  • 78 percent of surrogates said faith is important to them.
  • 16 percent of ICU conversations about medical care included mentions of spirituality or religion.
  • 5.6 percent of these conversations were initiated by health care professionals. The vast majority started with surrogates saying things like, “I’m very optimistic (about a recovery) because I know our faith is strong.”
  • Three doctors co-signed an op-ed piece that ran with the study, arguing that health care workers might want to learn how to engage with surrogates who start spiritual conversations.

I witnessed the final months of my mother, Virginia’s, life as she went from doctor to doctor. They knew an organ like her physical heart, but her spiritual and emotional heart were left untouched, making her heart feel unknown and unimportant. She went from facility to facility, not her comfortable home.

They say with today’s electronic tethers, we often have contact without conversation—in the same street, restaurant or airplane, sharing the same space but so engrossed in our mobile phones that we don’t communicate with the person next to us.

So if we’re seeing surrogates saying that faith is important to them regarding the human patients they’re making medical decisions for, doesn’t it make perfect sense to be engaging pet owners with discussions of faith in healing or passing? Works for me. You?

My daughter, trainer Mikkel Becker, recently interviewed famed veterinary oncologist Dr. Greg Ogilvie via email about cancer. When asked what a dog needs most during treatment from its human, Dr. Ogilvie replied, “Love (and prayer).”

The Marty who graduated from veterinary school in 1980 during the parvo outbreak would have never thought about faith being a component of treatment. The Marty who still practices as a veterinarian at North Idaho Animal Hospital in Sandpoint, Idaho, thinks about it all the time.

How about you?

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