A Soulful Surgeon

Interview by Valerie Reiss

We talk to a physician about glimpsing God through his patients' souls--and how you can stay spiritually sane in a hospital.

In 30 years as a Harvard-trained brain surgeon, Dr. Allan Hamilton has not only seen disease and healing--he's also glimpsed the mystical side of medicine. After suffering a devastating back injury while serving in Desert Storm, Dr. Hamilton learned to be a patient. It infused his life with new purpose: While in a body cast, he invented a now widely-used method for treating tumors. As a medical professor at the University of Arizona, he teaches surgeons to avoid fatal mistakes. And he runs an equine-assisted therapy program for cancer patients and survivors at Rancho Bosque outside of Tucson.

Dr. Hamilton's new book is, "The Scalpel and the Soul: Encounters with Surgery, the Supernatural, and the Healing Power of Hope." He recently talked to Beliefnet about his most inspiring patients, how to stay positive in medical settings, and the spirituality they didn't teach in medical school.

What inspired you to write about your spiritual experiences as a surgeon?

I felt I had gone far enough in my career that I could say I was totally unprepared for the spiritual challenges that I encountered in taking care of my patients. When people are facing a severe illness or a major surgery, that may be may be one of the most significant opportunities for spiritual transformation that they will encounter.

So as a doctor, if you don't take that into account, youíre missing a big piece of the picture?

I tell residents, if you gave me two patients with identical problems and one of them had family at the bedside with a lot of laughter, plus photos and a quilt from home, and next door was another patient who was alone every time I came by Iím going to be very nervous about the isolated patient's mental status.

Have you observed that affecting their physical outcome as well?

Well, there are plenty of studies that have shown that depression is associated with decreased immunity. So I want to harness all of the positive emotional energy I can in a patient to get better. If thereís not a lot of energy there, or if it's very negative, thatís going to make the task of getting them through surgery and having a good recovery much more difficult.

In the book you talk a lot about hope. There's one moving story about a patient named Donald.

That was one of the saddest experiences I have ever had as a physician, and probably one of the most insightful. This was a young man I got very close to. He was an avid fisherman. And he had a malignant brain tumor. He did very well with the surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. This was a kid with an irrepressible spirit--it was exactly the kind of shining emotion that you love to see.

And one day he took me aside and looked me square in the eye and said, When itís time for me to 'go fishing'--and you know what I mean--tell me. I gave him my word that I would.

Over several more years there were problems, but we fought them off. But, finally, the tumor was really invading his brain. One morning I said, "I promised you that I would tell you when it was time to go fishing. It is now time. 

He went home, and the next morning his mother called and told me that he had died. You could say he died of his disease. He didnít. He died because I cut his string of hope. It taught me how powerful that is, and that nobody, no physician, ever has the right to take away somebodyís hope. As well as intentioned as it might have been, I literally just snipped it, and it was a mortal snip. 

But you also want to honor a request like that.

Yes, you do. In retrospect, he was saying, You tell me when youíve given up hope, and then Iíll give up mine. If the conversation had been in those words, I would have said, Iíll never give up hope. 

Can you talk about the patient whose brain had to be shut down so you could repair an aneurysm? 

This is a technique thatís used on a handful of difficult cases. They put the patient on a heart pump, then cool down the blood. The heart flutters and stops. Thereís no blood flow to the brain, and no electrical activity in the brain. Now you can operate on a very significant blood vessel while no blood is flowing through it.

Once the procedure is finished and you realize youíre within the time limit of 20 minutes or so, everybody breathes a sigh of relief. And then the team gets ready to slowly warm the patient up. Sometimes thereís some banter. One of the nurses said she was getting engaged, and that they had gone to this restaurant, and had gotten the ring at this particular store, etc. 

When the patient woke, she reported the entire conversation. While her heart was stopped, while her brain had no activity, she somehow remembered that conversation. 

And that is scientifically impossible. If the brain is essentially dead, then how can it make a memory? A case like that shakes you up. Youíre getting very close to the Holy Grail: "Is this what we mean by a soul? Is this what we mean by an entity that can exist separate from the physical body and the brain?"

And what do you do with that, personally? 

People think of science as rolling back the mystery of God. I look at science as slowly creeping toward the mystery of God. 

Here I have an example of consciousness existing outside of the body and any physical parameters that we associate with somebody being conscious. That really changes how I look at what happens when the functions that we associate with life disappear.





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