When my sister gave birth to her first child last year, I had the honour of being in the room to support her and witness this tiny miracle. Pretty soon after the birth, I left the room to call my parents and relay the awesome news. When a baby is born in my family, it is our spiritual and religious belief to do a prayer and open our scripture and select the first verse of that page as blessings for the newborn. We name the baby with the first letter of that scriptural verse. It is a sacred ceremony to us and many generations including my own children and myself were named this way. So, my parents were happily waiting to do this for my niece.
I was on my way back, excited to bring my sister the blessing of the scriptural verse and letter to be used for the name of her child, but I got stopped at the nurses’ desk. There, sitting at the desk, was a new nurse - who said I couldn’t go in. I told her I had just been there and I only left to go and call my family. Instead of letting me finish, she said “Sorry the family needs time for bonding with the baby.” I started to tell her why I was going back and got an annoyed stare in return. I was hoping that she would understand if I explained to her the reason why I needed to quickly pop in. In return the nurse said “Does it really need to be done right now, it can wait, it’s not that important.”
I have worked with some amazing compassionate nurses, so I was surprised at this interaction. I was about to leave, but I felt it would go against everything we value. So instead, I let go of the irritation that was starting to rise and politely replied “I understand it is not important for you, but it is for your patient and her family. Everyone has different beliefs and I hope you would consider respecting and honoring our spiritual values, especially after I have shared something so intimately personal with you.” At this point she went quiet and then said under her breath, “What would you know about patient care?” I was hesitant to tell her I was a physician, but in the end told her and added that I had hoped by explaining to her the needs of our spirit she would honour this. The head nurse who heard part of the conversation came over and said “Go in but be quick”.
I immediately wondered if the nurse would have been so dismissive of my request, if they had known from the start that I was a physician? Then I quickly realised it shouldn’t matter whether I was a physician or any other profession. Our spiritual beliefs were dismissed as unimportant and that to me felt cold. I thought about how else this could have gone. What if she had embraced my spiritual beliefs while still keeping the rules of needing family time with the baby. She could have said something like “Thank you for sharing that with me. I won't be able to let you go in, however, If you are ok with me letting her know, you could write it down and I would be happy to give it to her.” I thought about other reasons that may have led her to answer the way she did - was she having compassion fatigue, did something happen in the day to her or with her family, was she simply exhausted? By asking these questions it allowed me to let go of my annoyance and empathize with her.
The more I reflected on this incident the more I developed deeper empathy and compassion for the nurse and also for the head nurse who told me to “be quick”, after all she may have said that to protect her staff.
I thought of the times I had done something similar, in residency or in the early stages of my career when I wasn’t prioritizing patients’ spiritual beliefs. We become so focused on our own agendas, procedures, or the needs of ourselves or our staff that we forget about the “needs of the spirit” of our patients and their families. I get it, I have done it myself, and am grateful for these experiences because they remind me to keep striving to be more aware of myself and people's beliefs from other backgrounds.
What this experience reinforced for me is that people from different cultures express and communicate their thoughts in a way that identifies with their culture. Their perspective and beliefs are shaped by how they have grown up and what is meaningful and purposeful to them. Their views of health and healing can have a different context than what we are used to seeing. Health may be viewed as a balance and harmony between themselves and the universe or even a higher power, God. Whatever it is, authentically listening and respectfully responding to the stories we hear is what most of us would appreciate.
It is essential to listen to what is meaningful to those we care for, it allows for that person to be heard and feel like they are being supported as a whole person. Maybe instead of dismissing diverse cultural/spiritual/religious perspectives, we can strive to be culturally humble. Understanding how invested our patients are in their traditions, culture, religion or spiritual beliefs will assist us with being more open to and empathic with the ideas that they express.
This can also help us understand why they may or may not commit to their treatment plans. We can then look for ways to support them in their treatment - ways that validate their own values, rather than compromising them. This practice of cultural humility really helps create a positive environment for healing to take place, a space in which we are truly open to the needs of the spirit.
Consider these 8 tips you could try for fostering humility and acceptance for others' beliefs:
It would be hard for any of us to pretend that colour, ethnicity, class, spirituality, religious beliefs, gender, culture or sexual orientations makes no difference to us. To truly be spiritually and culturally humble, we need to start with a commitment to developing our own awareness. This includes being aware of the times when we are having prejudice, judgment and making assumptions about others. It's important to be honest with ourselves about this.
Remember a time when you worked or had interactions with people from different backgrounds than your own. What thoughts or biases came up for you? How do you deal with any uncomfortable feeling you have with views that are different to yours? How do you feel when someone is not accepting of the views you have? What can you do to help yourself appreciate differences with others?
By taking the time to inform and educate ourselves, understand and appreciate the differences that come with the diversity of others, we honour the spirit and richness of humanity.
Spirituality is medicine.
Honouring and Serving
Simran Rattan MD
Connect Within. Honour yourself. Heal Innately.
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