When Our Patients Pray for Us
As a Christian who’s been practicing periodontics for 29 years, I’ve had numerous opportunities to share my faith and pray with my patients. A number of my patients have expressed their appreciation for having a fellow Christian responsible for their care.
Christian Medical & Dental Associations®
As a Christian who’s been practicing periodontics for 29 years, I’ve had numerous opportunities to share my faith and pray with my patients. A number of my patients have expressed their appreciation for having a fellow Christian responsible for their care. Over the years, I’ve also had the privilege of praying for my patients and for each of their procedures. I don’t, however, remember a single occasion, over those last 29 years, when a patient said they prayed for me. That is until recently, when on the same day two of my patients told me they had prayed for me.
As most of you know, life at medical and dental offices can be quite hectic, which has certainly been compounded by the COVID-19 environment. In addition, the nature of our practice is changing. Technological advances in all areas of healthcare are allowing professionals to offer more complex procedures that would not have been possible a decade ago. This is especially true in the field of periodontics, where advances in regeneration and dental implants have increased the complexities of our practice, and also have afforded unprecedented opportunities for the patient. This technical sophistication does serve the patient, yet as a result, the procedures are becoming more involved, thus more time consuming, taxing and stressful for the surgeon.
Recently, I had two rather complex cases in one day. Although I’ve performed a number of these surgeries and am confident in my knowledge and skills, surgeries like these carry much responsibility, and I take my responsibility seriously. Before we started the first case of the day, my patient looked up at me and said, “My sisters and I got together this morning and prayed for this operation and for you.” Now, that was a first! My initial thought was, “How nice,” and I started waiting for the warm, fuzzy feeling I expected to accompany the sentiment. However, instead of being comforted by my patient’s announcement, it oddly made me feel uneasy.
Later in the afternoon, before the second surgery, my next patient also looked at me and said, “I met with a group of men from my church this morning to pray for this operation and to pray for you. They didn’t pray for me, they only prayed for you!” and he cracked a smile. I thought to myself, “Uh oh! Twice in one day.” My reaction to this second patient’s statement was no different than my reaction to the first—the same indefinable sense of stress, only this time it was doubled. You’d think I would have been grateful for the prayer support of my patients, and certainly I was. However, in the moment, knowing these godly patients were praying for me only served to make me uncomfortable, yet I couldn’t pinpoint why.
A quick content search on the topic of praying with patients shows dozens of articles discussing how, when and if you should pray for your patients. I found the same holds true for praying with your patients. In 2018, the AMA Journal of Ethics published a comprehensive article on how to handle a situation where a patient asks you to pray with them. It went into the importance of religion in people’s lives and gave tips for healthcare professionals who “do not want to lie or misrepresent their spiritual beliefs.”1
In the fall 2016 edition of Today’s Christian Doctor (now known as CMDA Today), Dr. Walt Larimore wrote an excellent, comprehensive article entitled, “Praying with Our Patients.”2 In it, he covers the biblical and clinical cases for praying with and for our patients and discusses the cautions, obligations and opportunities for those types of prayers. Unfortunately, in neither of those articles, nor in any of the others I researched, could I find a discussion of the implications of our patients praying for us.
Often times I’ve prayed for other clinicians who were performing surgery. When my daughter required surgery to treat a badly fractured humerus, our family gathered and prayed for the procedure and the surgeon. Those same prayers for the sick and for those treating them is a common practice in most Christian churches, and as an elder in my church, I’ve led those prayers on a number of occasions. From the prayer for my daughter’s surgery came a complete trust in God’s sovereignty over the surgical staff and the procedure, and I was prepared to trust the outcome was God’s will. Once we prayed, it was in His hands; we accepted the will of God.
I know this seems like a contradiction, based on my response to the prayers for me; however, I found it difficult to adopt the same attitude when I was the one performing the surgery. Why did this wonderful sign of faith make me uncomfortable? In trying to analyze my feelings, my first thought was perhaps I would disappoint God if the surgery didn’t go well (as they sometimes don’t). After all, weren’t my patients trusting Him for a good result? I also wondered if the faith of my patients would be shaken if their prayers weren’t answered to their satisfaction, and I’d be the reason. My last thought was perhaps I was somehow responsible for the actions of a sovereign God. I confessed to my assistant, after hearing about those prayers, “I feared I would let God down.” She didn’t concur; then again, she wasn’t the one performing the surgery.
As anyone in healthcare knows, ideal surgical outcomes are not always possible. Unfavorable results can partially be our fault and others can occur for a variety of reasons. If a procedure yields a poor outcome as a result of something I did—and it happens to everyone from time to time—then am I interfering with God’s plans? You can see this line of reasoning would make it easy to feel that our actions could disappoint both God and our patients.
I’m not an insecure doctor, but I have a heart for my patients and want the best for them. I see daily, direct evidence of God using me to relieve pain and suffering and to improve the quality of the lives of my patients, and I’m thankful for those gifts and for being used by God. Although, given my perfectionistic bent, accepting less than ideal results is tough. Throw in the thought of disappointing not only my patients but also God, and it can make for a difficult analysis.
A quick look at Scripture tells us God is indeed sovereign over all things, which includes the results of our procedures. In Scripture, God’s purposes are accomplished with imperfect people. Joseph was sold into slavery and imprisoned, nevertheless God made him the second most powerful ruler in Egypt and preserved the people who would become His nation. Rahab was a harlot, Gideon had little faith and so on. Despite our failings, Romans 8:28 reminds us, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose,” and His purpose can involve using fallible healthcare professionals.
This story does have a happy ending though. It takes 10 minutes or so for local anesthetic to take effect, so after administering it to my patient in the second case, I went to my office to decompress a bit. I also wanted to figure out why I was so uneasy. From time to time, I send myself emails with Scripture verses I want to remember or words to hymns I find particularly comforting or inspirational. Hoping to find inspiration, I opened my computer to read some of those emails.
I landed on one I sent to myself about eight months prior containing the words to Lamentations 3:22-23:
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness” (ESV).
Wow! Those verses were exactly what I needed in the moment. It was definitely one of those times when I saw immediate, tangible evidence of God’s intervention. It’s important to see those opportunities when God reveals Himself, and to remember them and take comfort in them. God was telling me, “Don’t worry. My mercy is above what you can do and is sufficient for whatever outcome your patients have.”
This certainly doesn’t mean we should treat our profession cavalierly. We need to train, prepare and study to show ourselves approved, as well as to take up the full armor of God before we can take on the responsibility of practicing healthcare. David didn’t kill Goliath without preparation. He honed his skills with the sling during his former years as a shepherd and selected five good stones from the brook. David was certainly not perfect (just ask Uriah the Hittite), still God used his trained yet fallible body to defeat Goliath and accomplish His divine purpose. We may not be killing giants; however, we’re still being used as part of God’s plan.
When our patients pray for us, they are acknowledging their trust is not in us, rather it’s in God and His work in their lives. We’re just the tools He uses. God uses less than perfect people to do His will, which includes all of us. Outcomes don’t have to be perfect to please God. He was pleased with the perfect sacrifice of His Son who stood in the gap for us, so we don’t have to be perfect. We also need not worry about how the surgery will affect the faith of our patients. If we are faithful in our service to Him, He will be faithful in managing the outcome of our procedures, as well as the expectations of our patients.
The prayers of our patients should not be a source of stress for us. Instead, let them be a comfort. We should rejoice and be glad we serve a sovereign, merciful God who knows each of us intimately. His mercy is more than sufficient to enable imperfect people to be used for His purposes in the high calling of healthcare. Prayer is a powerful tool for believers, and whether we’re offering or receiving the prayer, we all need it! And, in case you were wondering, both procedures had favorable outcomes.
1 Christensen A.R., Cook T.E., Arnold R., “How Should Clinicians Respond to Requests from Patients to Participate in Prayer?”, AMA Journal of Ethics, July 2018.
2 Larimore W., “Praying for Our Patients,” Today’s Christian Doctor, fall 2016, Christian Medical & Dental Associations website, www.cmda.org.
About the Author
Donald L. Theriault, DMD, attended dental school at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine in Boston, Massachusetts and completed a general practice residency through the U.S. Air Force at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Nebraska. He completed his periodontal residency at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and practiced general dentistry and periodontics in the Air Force for 11 years. Since he left the Air Force in 1994, Don has been practicing periodontics in Portland, Maine and teaching periodontology at Tufts University Advanced Education in General Dentistry residency in Portland. Don has been a CMDA member since 1981 and is an elder at Second Parish Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Scarborough, Maine.