Recognizing a connection between patients and healing, the Medical College of Wisconsin sponsored “Faith and Medicine” March 24 as a way to learn, from a doctor’s point of view, customs, commandments and cultural practices that patients will bring with them.

The event, co-sponsored by MCW religious clubs the Christian Medical Association, the Jewish Student Union, the Latter-Day Saints Student Association and the Islamic Association, was open to all in the community to better their understanding of faith and healing.

Dr. Terese Bauer, a family practitioner at Walker’s Point Community Clinic for the Uninsured in Milwaukee, and a teacher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is Catholic. She said she has come across countless situations in which religion has influenced the wellness of a patient.

“There (are) so many things to discuss relating to the Christian faith, and wellness and illness and healing,” she said at the beginning of her talk. “We believe that life is sacred from the very beginning of conception all the way through to a natural death. The believing of God as our creator certainly informs who we are. It informs our conscience and helps us to develop an understanding of morality and ethics, which certainly plays a role in many aspects of patient care.”

Bauer explained each aspect of the Apostles’ Creed, as well as the ways in which the Christian faith can be applied to the urgent care she provides to her patients.

“In terms of a patient that is Christian, there is definitely that understanding that suffering is something that is not done alone,” she explained. “That there is an understanding that there is a God and Lord in whom we can place our trust and ask to walk with us, to be present with us, as we suffer.

“We also believe that by uniting our suffering with the suffering of Jesus, that that will also allow for some purpose in the suffering, and also as Jesus suffered and died and rose from the dead, by uniting the suffering with Jesus, that also will be brought to a higher purpose and brought into glory,” she said.

Prayer integral part of Muslim faith

The belief that suffering for God for a higher purpose is also a common thread in the Muslim religion, according to Dr. Mushir Hassan, the doctor representing a religion that has more than 1 billion followers worldwide.

“Muslims do believe in one God, and we do share the common ancestry of Abraham,” he said. “Our histories do diverge a bit, in that one ancestry follows Ishmael, and other ancestries will follow Isaac. However, the respect, the belief in the God that should be there” is a common conviction.

In addition to explaining the basic beliefs of the Muslim faith, such as the five pillars of Islam, Hassan also explained the importance of prayer.

“For those of you who will have patients as well as Muslim colleagues, one of the most (obvious things) you will see will be prayer. Muslims pray five times a day,” he explained. “You may encounter patients that at certain times request a dismissal or some time alone to pray, depending on what time of day it is.”

The once-a-year fast “Ramadan” is a significant time for Muslims, Hassan explained. Muslims get up an hour and half before the sun rises to eat a little food and drink some water, and then proceed to fast all day until sunset. According to Hassan, it can be difficult to watch one’s temper when one is so hungry.

“Watching your cool is important to do during this time period. It’s important every day of the year, but in particular this time period, and that could be a certain difficulty,” he said, explaining that it is also important to be informed of who has to fast during that time, and who can abstain from the requirement.

“A patient’s health comes first and foremost when matters of faith are concerned. So, if someone is ill, they’re not required to fast,” he said. “I think it’s important, as your rotations are done, you emphasize that to patients, that the Islamic (writings) do indicate your health as well is important. So, you must be healthy enough to fast, you must be sane to fast, and if you don’t have that going for you, you’re not required to fast.”

Hassan said he understands the common connections to his faith and the faiths of others.

“Certainly, I’m not a Christian, I’m a Muslim,” he said. “I’m coming from a minority faith, but I think that it allows me to be able to have that connection with my patients, of being able to have a recognition of the importance of God in my life, so patients do appreciate that.

“I think that sometimes in medical school one can get so involved and be almost afraid to talk about God because it’s potentially not ‘PC’ or one could be seen as imposing one’s view on others, but I think that regardless of your faith tradition, please feel a certain sense of urgency to inform yourself about what your faith vision says about some of these critical questions when it comes to faith.”

Balancing life, death challenge for Jews

Dr. Stuart Berger, chief of pediatric cardiology and professor of pediatric cardiology at MCW, is Jewish. Because of Judaism’s long and complex history, caring for Jewish patients can be challenging, he said.

“Trying to generalize the approach to a Jewish patient as a physician is very difficult,” Berger acknowledged. “The reason that’s the case is that there are several different sects within Judaism … and even within the sects there are tremendous differences in uniformity, in difference of observance.” “Traditional orthodoxy,” “reformed” and “conservative” are all various parts of the Jewish religion.

“I think one of the biggest dilemmas in working with Jewish patients, especially in the traditionalist sect, are end-of-life issues,” he explained. “They can be complicated because there is, just like in the other religions that you heard about and will hear about, a real concept of sanctity of life … it is very much held in the orthodoxy religion that life is a gift from God to be held in trust, and the cardinal principle is that there is an infinite value of human life.

“Jewish law requires that the physician should do everything to prolong life, and that shouldn’t be up to the physician or the patient to make that decision. However, it’s a very difficult concept because if you look at other places within the Jewish religion, there’s also a concept of prohibiting uses of measures to prolong dying, so it becomes very difficult.” Finding a balance between the two is key, according to Berger.

“As physicians, this can be a really difficult thing to deal with in an orthodox family when they are having a hard time making the decision that maybe you’re prolonging a death than prolonging a life,” he added.

“I would contend and hope that we all are the same,” Berger added. “Although we’re very different religions – and I think you’re going to hear from all of us that there are differences – I would contend that we’re really all the same, and our respective religions ultimately make us better. Make us better by preaching compassion toward our patients, by preaching reduction of suffering – that’s a very Buddhist concept – making a difference in the world, being human and really being a good person.”

Mormons comfortable with dying process

Dr. Chris Nussbaum represented the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, practiced by more than 13 million people. Nussbaum, an emergency room doctor at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center, acknowledged that when it comes to following the Mormon religion, there are a few restrictions.

“We have some specific laws regarding health, a few specific things,” he said, explaining that caffeine and alcohol are prohibited. Other than that, not much else is restricted, Nussbaum added.

“As a whole, members of our church are fairly comfortable with the dying process because we don’t feel that life is over at that point,” he explained. “We really believe we will see them again, and we will be able to live as God’s family. That’s very comforting at a time of loss and grief” for patients.