Anne Horsman, a G.P. from Hertfordshire, reports on a day conference which focussed on the spiritual needs of the sick.
As a doctor, I’m interested in the whole person, not just analysing sets of symptoms presented to me at ten minute intervals in my surgery. So when I heard of Dr Mabel Aghadiuno’s new book, Soul Matters – The Spiritual Dimension within Health Care, I was intrigued. When I read it, I knew it presented an approach that needed to be shared with the widest possible audience of those involved in all aspects of health care, professionals and users and those with supporting roles.
I meet regularly with a small group of like minded people to discuss the spiritual and ethical aspects of healthcare and we decided to have a go and organise a launch event. Around eighty people gathered at the Centre for Unity in Welwyn Garden City to hear Dr Aghadiuno present the main tenets of her book herself. To illustrate the underlying principles in the book, we invited a varied range of speakers involved in various different ways in the area under discussion.
The audience included a range of health and social care professionals, chaplains and chaplaincy volunteers and many who were interested in the topic as patients or carers. To introduce the theme, thought-provoking quotes from philosophers, scientists, politicians, poets were projected as we assembled. For example:
‘Spiritual relationship is far more precious than physical. Physical relationship divorced from spiritual is body without soul.’ Mahatma Gandhi.
‘It is only to the individual that a soul is given.’ Albert Einstein.
Regaining the balance
Dr Aghadiuno presented her work, illustrating how anyone can be the healer of another – and explained the difference between healing a person and treating them as a ‘disorder to be fixed’. She considered the different dimensions of a person (see illustration), and invited us to discuss with those next to us our own definition of ‘health’. Not so obvious or straightforward a notion as we might think. We were also intrigued to learn, as Dr Aghadiuno continued, that spiritual needs and wellbeing have only recently appeared in the World Health Organisation definition and to hear a reflection from a surprising source:
Dr Aghadiuno outlined the components of spiritual wellbeing as set out by Sir Alister Hardy, a marine biologist, who, on retirement, founded the Religious Experience Research Centre. His view of spiritual wellbeing comprised:
At this point, Dr Aghadiuno touched on the research into the spirituality of children and invited Mike Beresford, a consultant paediatrician, to share his experience of the spiritual depth displayed by his young patients and also his own ‘holistic’ healing approach in which he tried to put himself in their shoes – indeed to make himself one with them, so as to understand fully their true needs. His account of his ‘friends’ was warm, respectful and very moving.
With another change of pace, Diana Godden movingly read To God by Ivor Gurney, a WW1 poet who afterwards suffered severe depression.
Why have you made life so intolerable
With this reflection in mind, there was discussion a number of challenging and fascinating areas. These included the features of spiritual distress identified by palliative care nurses and published by Hospice and Palliative Nurses Association. These include questioning the meaning of life, anger at God or higher power, questioning one’s own belief system, questioning of meaning of suffering and so on.
We also looked at ways in which health professionals, pastoral and family carers might uncover this distress and connect with it; models of doctor or other professional-patient relationships.
The second half of the day was given over to group discussions. Conversations were lively and full of passion and there was a great sense of the depth of experience of all those participating. Dr Aghadiuno and the supporting speakers had given us a great deal to think about. And, strangely, the ‘making yourself one’, standing in the other person’s shoes we had heard about earlier in the day had become a tangible reality in the room. We were, for the most part, a group of strangers but the encouragement to listen to one another, see life from the other’s point of view had resulted in us becoming friends. We had a shared interest, be it on a personal or professional level in health and wellbeing, and had been given an opportunity to gain a valuable insight into the ‘non-technical’, non-medical aspects of health and ‘dis-ease’. We each left with our own reflections on how the day – and the book – would benefit our own approach. Any many are looking forward to the next opportunity to meet again and carry on some of the discussions started but not finished.
Some comments from those attending:
Copyright © Focolare.org.uk