Prayer plays role in places of healing


The Rev. Peter Fauerbach is the chaplain at UF & Shands in Gainesville on Monday.

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, November 26, 2012 at 9:46 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, November 26, 2012 at 9:46 p.m.

Shateria Williams was told she would never get pregnant.

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The Rev. Peter Fauerbach is the chaplain at UF & Shands in Gainesville on Monday.

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun

She'd been trying to conceive since she married at age 20, but a year later, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She had one of her ovaries removed, significantly decreasing her chances of ever bearing children.

But earlier this month, Williams' doctor had wonderful news: Williams, now 29, is pregnant. She's also cancer-free.

Stories of medical miracles and inexplicable healing experiences occasionally trickle down from the medical establishment. At the heart of these stories is oftentimes, at least for patients, the power of prayer. People often turn to prayer and faith when they are sick, and even if they are never cured in the flesh, experts say the process of getting closer to God constitutes a sort of spiritual salvation that itself is healing.

"Prayer is a form of communication between an individual and the creator," said Louis Ritz, the director of the University of Florida Center for Spirituality and Health. "As long as that line is open, healing is going to take place."

But some patients whose prayers are not answered begin to struggle with their faith. Williams hadn't been to church in three years until last month.

"You get to the point when you think the preachers are lying. I'd been told by at least 100 pastors that I would get pregnant, and nothing happened," she said.

But Williams got "a different feeling" one day in mid-October, at her doctor's appointment at North Florida Regional Medical Center, when a woman working there gave Williams a pamphlet about a guest preacher at the Jones Temple Church of God in Christ in Williston. Williams decided to give church one more try.

She and her family went to the Williston church on the night of Oct. 20, and when the preacher touched Williams, she said she felt a burning sensation in her body and started to scream.

"The power of prayer burned out that cancerous condition," said Pastor Shalonda Session-Willis, the preacher that night. "Prayer is more or less the tool God gave us to bridge the gap between the natural and the supernatural."

A week later, Williams found out the cancer was gone, and three weeks later, that she was pregnant.

While stories like Williams' might represent the miraculous outcomes that some people associate with prayer, at its most basic, prayer reduces patients' anxiety, said Peter Fauerbach, a chaplain at Shands at UF. "It helps them feel there is power beyond them, beyond the doctors that are there with them," Fauerbach said. "Prayer helps them turn over what's happening to them to God, and that can relieve their worry."

Alfonso Harris, a 32-year-old from Ocala, has been in and out of hospitals with sickle-cell anemia since he was born. He prays at night and throughout the day.

"When I'm feeling good, I walk down to the chapel and write my prayers in the book," said Harris, who is now hospitalized at Shands. "It gives me something to look forward to. I figure the more I do it, the stronger I'll get." Praying has helped him feel better physically, too. "It keeps me moving. If I didn't do it, I'd be stuck," he said.

Thomas Johnson, a chaplain at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Gainesville and Alachua County prisons, attributes the power of prayer to his recovery from AIDS and a brain tumor he said was the size of his fist. While prayer "defies the natural order of life," said Johnson, it should never be substituted for medical treatments.

"This is not what God says. Even Luke in the New Testament is a doctor."

Doctors and medical students are frequently called on to pray with patients, said Ritz, who conducts workshops for third-year students on end-of-life issues.

"(Praying) is an opportunity to bond with your patients. It's an opportunity to share (with) a patient that you really care."

And that's appropriate, since a physician's role is in part to relieve patients' suffering, and prayer can relieve the mental turmoil associated with physical suffering, Ritz added.

How prayer actually alleviates pain and suffering is still somewhat of a mystery, although studies have shown that both prayer and meditation can positively affect circuits throughout the brain, said Ritz, who is also a professor in the department of neuroscience at the UF College of Medicine and McKnight Brain Institute.

But pinning science to what appear to be miraculous events is another story. Ritz said he hears about recoveries similar to Williams' all the time.

"I don't doubt them. Throughout history, all sorts of miracles have taken place," Ritz said. "I'm confident that someday we will understand the laws behind them."

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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