Physicians that manage severe disease witness the powerful role that religion plays in dealing with pain and suffering. Drawing on concepts in philosophy, theology and psychology to examine the relationship between illness and religion, Siroj Sorajjakool guides clinicians through their patients’ spiritual journeys in When Sickness Heals: The Place of Religious Belief in Healthcare (Templeton Foundation Press, $19.95). Sorajjakool’s academic background in theology and clinical background in pastoral counseling give him a unique perspective on the struggle to cope with disease.
In order to tackle such a topic, the Loma Linda University professor of religion, psychology and counseling must first define the terms. Sorajjakool puts forth a definition of spirituality as an innate quest for meaning, one stimulated by illness and tragedy.
When stricken with severe illness, we, as humans, turn toward ritual and divine intervention to gain control, ease anxiety and find purpose or meaning behind our suffering. This is exemplified when the newly diagnosed patient prays for a miracle cure for his or her terminal condition.
The concept of the miracle represents a longing to revert life back to a positive, meaningful state. Sorajjakool explains that when patients realize the miracle will not occur, they enter a new phase of spirituality, and begin to integrate their suffering into their system of meaning. Patients who make this "faith journey" are finally able to find meaning within their suffering. Religious symbolism assists with this journey by providing an avenue to integrate suffering with meaning. Soraj¬jakool also explores cultural and religious differences in the way mental illness is defined, perceived and managed.
These principles established, Soraj¬ja¬kool provides a means by which clinicians can assess a patient’s spirituality to determine his or her progress along the faith journey. Understanding the progress of spiritual transition can allow the clinician to interact with the patient and family in a manner that facilitates communication and minimizes anxiety. Spiritual care is then possible.
The caregiver does not lead the patient through the faith journey—it is an individual one—but provides space within which the journey can occur, without expectation or prejudice.
The author presents very complex philosophical arguments within a framework appropriate for the target audience. Sorajjakool begins each chapter with a brief summary of the discussion to follow. With the endpoint of the argument up front, the reader is able to enjoy the complex text that develops the intended message. In supporting his arguments, Sorajjakool draws examples from classic and contemporary philosophers, several diverse religious teachings, personal anecdotes and even contemporary cinema. These examples provide the reader with practical demonstration of the messages he conveys and add an element of flow to the reading.
While the author does an excellent job of incorporating his vast knowledge of both Eastern and Western religion and philosophy, the reader longs for more clinical anecdotes. The beautiful clinical experiences that Sorajjakool cites are the most pleasant part of the material. I found myself wishing stories were expounded upon and more numerous.
Still, for the physician who manages severe disability, this book provides indispensable insight into the religious transition and spiritual journey the patients must navigate.
Dr. Leroy Trombetta is a general surgeon on staff at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.