THERAPY THROUGH THE SENSES

A few days ago as I slowly awoke from a painful biopsy and procedure, I pressed against my stomach and cried out in excruciating pain. The nurse came to my side, held my arm and asked “on a scale of 1-10 how much pain?” I replied immediately, “8!” Concerned, the nurse said, “Okay, take a deep breath, I’m going to up the morphine.”

Much to my own surprise, I asked trembling, “Is there a way for me to listen to something?” The nurse was caught off guard, “I’m sorry I don’t have anything, just hang in there, you’ll be alright.” Some time later, the pain still quite bad, I spotted another nurse and called out, “excuse me! Anything I can please listen to? I’m in so much pain.” The nurse seemed confused… “I can ask the doctor for more morphine,” she replied. I nodded my head, resigned to my fate. I wish my wife were next to me (darn Coronavirus protocols!), she would advocate for me, I thought to myself. Finally, a third nurse came by and asked if she could give me my phone so I could listen to something. I was so relieved.

Even though I was only half awake, I used memory muscle to get to my Qur’an app and to the recitation of Surah al-Rahman (55) by my newly discovered favorite qari Abdur-Rashid Sufi. Oh the sweet coolness and calm as the recitation began. The “morphine” had finally kicked in.

“Feeling better,” asked the nurse who saw my physical demeanor change. I could only smile and nod. The Qur’an, after all, describes its own self as “a healing and a mercy” (17:82). The wise sages regularly prescribe healing passages from the Qur’an alongside medicine. As a chaplain, so often what the suffering and their families ask me to do to bring some relief to their misery is “recite some Qur’an.”

That was just the first of many invasive procedures on this journey with cancer. Now everytime I ask if I can take my phone in to listen to “music.” The answer is usually no because the device interferes with the procedure or they lack the means toplay it. So, instead my background noise before I go under or recover is banter with the occasional, “You okay, bud?”

It is another indication that western medicine and hospitals in particular, from my observations, are too reliant on pills without enough integration of peace to treat human ailments. What is so often missing in the patients rooms are plants or paintings. The waiting rooms and cafes and hallways are often more aesthetically pleasing to the eyes and ears than the room with the suffering patient.

Long ago Muslims were at the forefront of music therapy drawing on eastern medicine that considered therepeatic sounds essential to the healing of the body. I was struck in a recent viewing of The Cave, a documentary about an underground trauma center in Syria that looked after victims of war, that the surgeon would play an orchestra off of his phone because he didn’t have enough anesthesia to numb the pain of his patients and for his own psychological relief.

I tell my family and caregivers that what I fear even more than dying is long term hospitalization. Hospitals can be some of the most depressing places in America. I remember a couple of summers ago when I struck by a life threatening pneumonia I had to stay in the hospital for two whole weeks and not once did I get to enjoy the fresh air outside. I’m no doctor, but something about that seems to indicate a tragic misunderstanding about the wholesome nature of the human being and what it takes to heal.

I think hospital chaplains have a crucial role here to play in working with open minded doctors and administrators in rethinking healing from a more holistic perspective. What would it look like if sacred music was offered as a norm rather than the exception or if deep breathing exercises were integrated into pain reduction or visual images of natures beauty were part of the treatment?

Living and Dying with Grace. Reflections of a Muslim Chaplain.