“Deeply held beliefs .. need not only to be recognized and respected, but also integrated into the therapeutic approach in order for treatment to succeed. It is a lesson that has served me well, and which has helped me to serve so many others over the years.”—Dennis Rosen, MD
In a recent New York Times op-ed entitled A Doctor, a Rabbi and a Chicken, Dennis Rosen, the author of Vital Conversations: Improving Communication Between Doctors and Patients, explores an odd yet pivotal moment in his medical career.
While working in a hospital in Israel, Rosen explained to the son of 75-year-old stroke victim what lay ahead for his father in terms of rehabilitation. The son then asked if a rabbi could enter his father’s hospital room. While such a request might not have been strange, what was different was that when the rabbi walked in the room he was carrying a live chicken and then proceeded to wave it above the patient’s head.
Rosen learned that it was a custom of the local Persian-Jewish community to help heal the sick. In describing the experience, Rosen writes:
I was very impressed by how deftly the son was able to maneuver between two very different belief systems explaining his father’s disease and paths towards possible recovery: biomedical and religious. As evidenced from our repeated discussions about tests and treatment plans for his father, he clearly understood — and valued — what modern medicine could offer. And yet, his belief in Divine mercy and intercession was unshakeable….
Although it hadn’t occurred to me to disrupt the unfamiliar ceremony with the chicken — mostly because I was so astonished by it — I probably would have been within my rights to do so: bringing live poultry into an inpatient ward is risky from an infection-control perspective, after all.
I’m glad that I didn’t. Doing so would have prevented my patient and his caregivers from accessing the healing potential that their religious beliefs provided them, and likely would have provoked antagonism towards — or the outright rejection of — the biomedicine that I represented. And that would have been detrimental to my patient, who so clearly needed the powers of both in order to heal.
Although nearly 19 years have passed since that October evening, hardly a month goes by in which I do not find myself reflecting on this patient, and the chicken. This invariably occurs because of an interaction I’m having with another patient or family with deeply held beliefs that need not only to be recognized and respected, but also integrated into the therapeutic approach in order for treatment to succeed. It is a lesson that has served me well, and which has helped me to serve so many others over the years.