Doctor-Clergy Co-operation

Dr Diana Lowry, a full-time NHS GP, tells how she has set up a 'Priest Surgery' in the practice where she works, to enable people to see a priest to discuss spiritual issues on 'neutral ground'.

This article was first published in 2006. The author's profile below is from the same date

Dr Diana Lowry is a full-time NHS GP working in a practice in Epping. She is also a practising Christian and a member, through her church, of the Guild of St Raphael.

© Guild of St Raphael

A Priest Surgery

The Church that has grown out of God’s love for us all is sometimes not very accessible to those who have a need of healing. There is no simple answer to this but one way in which I have tried to bring people in my practice in contact with the church is to have a Priest Surgery.

Priest surgery

GPs spend a lot of time listening to people going through, small and large, life crises. Just being diagnosed with a chronic illness, can be very worrying for a patient. They wonder about how it will affect their lifestyle, their friendships and life expectancy. As I read ‘A Time to Heal’*, I felt very strongly that I needed to help patients with their spiritual health. Many people who do not go regularly to church, do believe in God in some way, and want to involve him at certain times in their lives. Why not have a Priest Surgery, I thought? I discussed it with other members of the practice and in January 2003 we started the surgery for two hours once a month. Two local priests, with a lot of experience in pastoral care come to the surgery and see patients who refer themselves. When the surgery started we encouraged patients to go and see the priest, without feeling they had to discuss it with their GP first. However it became apparent that patients were used to being ‘referred’ by their GP for further treatment, and it was no different with this new surgery. So we started to discuss it with patients if we thought it appropriate. Even the occasional person who did self-refer seemed to feel that they should check with their GP that it was OK!

Over the months the priests have seen people with a range of problems, like those with chronic illness such as arthritis and ME. There have been people having problems coming to terms with bereavement and those facing chemotherapy. An alcoholic has started attending and another lady whose faith has been foundering a little has also been seen. Many patients, when they come across the leaflets in the surgery, comment on how pleased they are that this service is available for patients, should they need it. Several of the leaflets have disappeared and I am sure are sitting on people’s mantelpieces, just in case they have such a need. I also believe that just having a notice bringing people’s attention to spiritual matters has encouraged others to go back into a church for worship, or bring up spiritual issues during a consultation with doctor or nurse.

Living with chronic illness

Coming to terms with a chronic illness is often difficult, for patient and family. It is even more of a problem when the illness is something like ME, one of the conditions collectively known as ‘chronic fatigue syndromes’ that can be very debilitating. Its cause is unknown; it is characterized by symptoms such as muscle pain and fatigue, aching glands, exhaustion, poor concentration and depression. There is no diagnostic test that can be done to confirm the diagnosis and no definite treatment; antidepressants may be helpful, and graduated exercise plans often help people to manage their activity levels but often nothing makes any difference. Many people, even doctors, think that ME is a not a real illness and that people should just ‘pull themselves together’. This is very unhelpful and is likely to make the patient more depressed and angry about their disease. One of the patients who attends the Priest Surgery wrote this:

“My name is Elizabeth. I have lived with ME for the last nine years. As with all chronic illness it is difficult to cope with, and lifestyles have to change. This is never easy for the patient or the family. You try not to become too tired as then your body goes into collapse mode. I have had a lot of support and care from my GP, and also help from hospitals, on coping with ME. I eat a special diet, have acupuncture and do meditation. Now I have found ‘healing’.

Our church in Epping did a course on ‘healing’ during Lent. It made a lot of sense, and I am now reading all I can about ‘healing’. I have had a couple of sessions with ‘laying on of hands’ and anointing with oil, in church, which I found gave me immense strength and peace. I personally do not think of ‘healing’ as something to make me completely well again, but it does give me a lot of strength to cope. I recently had an operation and had ‘laying on of hands’ and anointing before I went into hospital. It definitely helped and now I am recovering from the surgery. I will continue to go to church for ‘laying on of hands’, and for Communion. The care and support of the church, along with that of my family, has made a real difference to me. I am sure it can help other people in difficult circumstances.”

Elizabeth was one of the first people to attend the Priest Surgery. She knew I was a member of the local church and we used to have discussions about the role of faith in helping us to cope with illness. She was keen to explore spiritual matters in more depth: she described herself as a Christian but was not a habitual churchgoer. After seeing the priest at the surgery a few times, she felt that she wanted to go to church on a more regular basis. She attends Holy Communion at least once a month, and lately has received anointing and ‘laying on of hands’ after the service. It is partly because she has found this to be so helpful that we now make such offices available to anyone who wishes after the main Sunday service and hold Healing Services. The Eucharist is often seen as a healing force in itself, and we hope that extending the opportunity for these other sacraments will encourage more people to seek healing.

Physical illness and inner healing

I first met Margaret as a newcomer after church one Sunday. We started chatting and when she found out that I was a GP she told me that although she was very happy living in Epping she had been plagued with vertigo that stopped her going to work. She registered with me and I tried her on various treatments to help her giddiness. Sometimes they worked for a short time but never for long enough to allow her to go back to work as a teacher. I was puzzled: vertigo can be ‘psychosomatic’ but Margaret didn’t seem to be that ‘sort of person’. She continued trying different medications and I referred her to the hospital who were unable to advise on any effective treatment.

A few months after Margaret first came to see me we held our first healing service. I was not surprised to see her there and afterwards she and I had a chat. She told me that she had come along to ask God to heal her from her vertigo but he didn’t seem to be interested in that! He made it clear to her that it was her reaction to her divorce that she needed to deal with. Margaret then told me how a few years ago her husband had come home and told her that he didn’t want to be married anymore as he couldn’t cope with the pressure of it all. Instead he was going abroad to teach SCUBA diving. So off he went leaving Margaret with four teenage children, a full-time job and a house to run. She just got on with it, finding it very difficult but managing to juggle everything. Eventually she decided to move house and this is how she came to Epping. I was able to tell Margaret that I believed her vertigo had been brought on by the stress of her divorce and that symptoms related to stress can come on some time after the triggering event. It is almost as if the adrenaline rush gets us over the initial stress and it is later that we have to deal with the physical and psychological fallout. Over the next few weeks all her giddiness went, she stopped her medication and she is back at work. I now only see her in church!

There are many other cases of healing that I could describe but I hope that readers will find it interesting to see conventional medicine and spiritual healing working together.

* ‘A Time to Heal’ was a report for the House of Bishops on the Healing Ministry produced in 2000.

© Guild of St Raphael