UMMC caregivers acknowledge religion’s restorative role for patients, families
By Gary Pettus
When Julie Evers Crump was about five months’ pregnant, a physician solemnly ushered her into a private room with two chairs and a box of Kleenex.
Every word he threw at her stung her like a punch in the gut.
He offered to get the pregnancy “taken care of,” Crump recalled. “He told me, ‘Your baby is not going to live.’
“I politely told him that was not his decision to make.”
So Nelson Crump was born on Jan. 13, 2004, with no spleen and with a heart that beat on the wrong side of his body.
His mother let Nelson make the decision: He could get a new, perfect heart from the doctors or he could get one “from Jesus.”
Lexi Holifield and her father, Daniel Holifield
Last December, about two months after her 10th birthday, Lexi Holifield was in a pickup truck with her mother on the way to a store when a driver hit them from the side at 70 mph.
The force of the collision threw Lexi from the truck and slammed her head to the ground, plunging her into a coma.
“In the ICU, they told us she would never breathe on her own again,” her mother, Danielle Holifield, said. “They said Lexi would never wake up, but if she did, she wouldn’t be the same person.
“I didn’t believe them. I saw signs from God.”
She believed Him.
In medical school, they don’t teach “Advanced Beliefs in Divine Intervention,” “Medical Miracles” or “Cardiology and God.”
No one is saying they should, exactly, but it is difficult to exaggerate the magnitude of religion in many patients’ lives in Mississippi, where John 3:16 often carries more weight than the surgeon general’s warning.
Physicians, researchers and chaplains alike at the University of Mississippi Medical Center acknowledge the role faith often plays in a patient’s medical decisions, and yet, students and residents may not be well-prepared to face the touchy subject when medicine and religion collide.
“We don’t do a good job of training students to be sensitive to this, and we certainly don’t give it a lot of time,” said Dr. Rick Boyte, professor of pediatrics
and director of pediatric pain and palliative medicine
“Experience often is what teaches you.”
Experience shows that conflicts between faith and medical science vary.
There are patients, or their family members, who refuse certain treatments based on religious teachings. Some reject blood transfusions, for instance.
There are end-of-life issues, where family members insist that treatment for a loved one continue even when doctors consider it futile. The family wants to “give God more time.”
There are those who try to depend solely on faith and prayer, who want to take everything out of the physicians’ hands and put it in God’s.
“There is no sense in getting into a debate with someone about their beliefs,” Boyte said. “It’s not about winning them over with my brilliant philosophy. There is no winning it.”
An adult patient capable of making his or her own decisions is one thing; when adults make decisions for children, that’s another.
Mississippi law is conflicted on the subject. A parent or other caregiver cannot be found neglectful for withholding a child’s medical treatment based solely on resorting to “spiritual means” alone – faith healing or prayer. On the other hand, when it comes to school immunizations, there are only two states that require them in spite of religious beliefs against them: West Virginia and Mississippi.
And, in life-threatening situations, physicians can get a court order to treat a child.
“If you can say, ‘This child is going to die without this treatment,’ the judge will most likely grant it and can do it over the phone,” Boyte said.
In Nelson Crump’s case, his parents did not reject medical treatment for him. They rejected one doctor’s dismal verdict.
Julie Evers Crump of Brandon decided “to live in faith, rather than fear.”
“I never once thought of medical intervention,” she said.
Nelson did well after he was born and, at two months, survived open heart surgery. But on his first birthday, he worsened. The next day, at 6:44 p.m., he received what his mother called his “perfect heart,” but not from the doctors.
In spite of her son’s short life, Crump believes she was rewarded by her faith.
“God chose me,” she said. “He gave me a child that I, in turn, gave the best that he could possibly get in his 366 days of life.
“That’s why God gave him to me, because that’s what I would do.”
In the case of Lexi Holifield, her parents also did not forgo medicine. But they did pray. They prayed for God to bring their daughter out of her coma – in other words, for a miracle.
Two months later, they were still praying.
“I know what the doctors told us,” said Danielle Holifield of Laurel. “I know that’s their job. They don’t want to tell you it’s OK when your daughter may not be OK.”
This is often a source of conflict: what doctors believe can be done and what patients believe God can do. Boyte remembers a father who refused to stop treatment for his child when there was no chance for recovery.
“We couldn’t understand why the family wanted to go on,” Boyte said. “Then the dad said he used to be a gangbanger, but had turned to God.
“He said, ‘If God saved a wretch like me, he certainly can save my child.’”
Over the years, Boyte has become more willing to hear the parents out.
“After all, it’s their child,” he said. “In some situations, there is enough wiggle room to accommodate them. We’re talking about something physicians have to live with for a few minutes or days; the parents have to live with it the rest of their lives.”
In this, he has tried to follow the example of UMMC’s chaplains, such as Dr. Ruth Black, director of pastoral services
“You must say to yourself, ‘I will seek to understand this difference rather than just tolerate it,’” Black said. “People just want to tell their story and hold onto their faith.”
They may cling to words that physicians and nurses misinterpret: “miracle,” for one.
“Sometimes, family members are just hoping that a dying patient can hold on until a certain relative can get here from out of town,” said Linda McComb, hospital chaplain. That’s their “miracle.”
While chaplains are trained to handle these cases, they’re usually called in only after a crisis develops.
Yet research shows that patients want to be invited to talk about their faith long before that, said Dr. Caroline Compretta, a research fellow in the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities
“They don’t feel comfortable bringing it up on their own,” she said. “Physicians don’t seem to be trained to do that either. And we live in the Bible Belt.”
The prong in the buckle of that belt, it seems.
Patients with the strongest faith include many African-Americans, said Timothy McGregor, hospital chaplain.
“The majority we come in contact with believe in divine healing.”
Compretta has written a research proposal that would help open the door to patient-physician discussions about such beliefs. Set to begin later this year, her study, among other things, would uncover techniques medical students could take to their future practices.
In the School of Medicine
, Dr. Loretta Jackson-Williams is among those who believe students must learn those techniques.
“It’s really important for us to set the tone for how someone will go into private practice,” said Jackson-Williams, associate dean for academic affairs.
Starting that conversation would build trust and relationships between doctors and patients, Compretta said. As for hospital cases, UMMC chaplain Jeffrey Murphy, for one, believes he and his colleagues should offer troubled patients their help before they ask for it.
“If a patient is gasping for air,” he said, “do you stand by and say, ‘Would you like to see a respiratory therapist?’”
Even atheists ask to see chaplains, Murphy said.
“That’s because we don’t talk about religion. We talk about meaning and purpose.”
As it happens, UMMC recently adopted a list of “Chaplain Referral Triggers” – patient situations that oblige staff to call in chaplains at the start of a case: poor/uncertain prognoses, suicide attempts, end-of-life discussions and more. Often, it’s parents who pull these triggers – people who rely on God’s will, divine intervention or miracles to save their children.
“Sometimes, families hold on forever and ever,” Black said. “And sometimes, we see some of those patients walk out of this hospital.”
She remembered a girl from Laurel – blonde, 10 years old—who had been in a coma for two months.
In the room, there’s a framed photo of a blonde girl in her cheerleader outfit. It rests on top of a Bible.
The girl’s mother had just finished telling the story of the wreck, how doctors told her that Lexi would never wake up.
“She’s my only girl. If we had lost her, we would have lost everything.”
She told this story, and then rose from her chair to lean over the figure of the girl lying on her back in the hospital bed. She put her ear close to her daughter’s face.
Danielle Holifield’s faith had been rewarded, too.
“I’m right here,” the girl said, in a whisper only her mother could hear. “You didn’t lose me.”