Can Praying For Someone Help Them Heal

Updated: Nov 8 2003, 05:30am hrs
A few days ago we got the news that a very old friend, someone I have known most of my life, had collapsed with a cerebral haemorrhage while travelling abroad. She is now lying in a hospital in a strange country, too critical to be flown back home. Its unreal: One evening she was perfectly healthy, partying. The next morning, she is unconscious and being rushed into emergency surgery. No one knows howor ifshell come through this.

In an instant everything has changed for the family. Like a theft in the night, that precious thing called Security is gone. Life as they knew it is over. Friends and family-members sit around, desperately wanting her to be well, desperately wanting to help in some way. But no one knows what to do. The brain is churning, thinking the worst: What if she never comes back What if she doesnt make it

Someone says: Pray. Please pray for her.

Its like reaching for straws. Praying is all very well, but what can it really do

The answer, with a few nods from science, is: It may just make a difference. Physician and researcher Larry Dossey, in his medically-controversial but highly acclaimed work Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, makes a startling claim: Prayer may actually help heal patients more powerfully than drugs or surgery.

Predictably, with a claim like that, more sceptics than saints have come marching in.

Is God for real Is He more powerful than penicillin Can you test Him in a laboratory Apparently you can. Dosseys work scans over 300 studies that have been conducted worldwide including some at Harvard, Stanford and Princeton universities. At least half these studies show that prayingeither for yourself or someone elsecan have dramatic healing effects. So much so that Dossey says he regards the data as among the best-kept secrets in medical science.

Dossey isnt the only one treading this unknowable, area. Other doctorsdozens of themhave also been measuring the effects of prayers, meditation, hope and forgiveness on the body. In one study, Dr Elizabeth Targ found that people who received prayer and remote healing had six times fewer hospitalisations than the people who received neither. I was sort of shocked, she said. Its like witnessing a miracle.

Similarly, Dr Bernie Siegel, best-known for his work with cancer patients, found that people who meditated as well as those who confided traumatic experiences to diaries rather than repressing them had significantly enhanced immune function. He says: Individuals who change in response to their illness can exceed expectations or achieve results doctors consider miraculous.

Researchers believe that praying helps trigger a relaxation response which is more conducive to healing. It may also create a placebo effect, leading to healing by suggestion. More likely, it gives people a feeling of acceptance, connection to each other and an attitude which honours the rightness of whatever happens.

Many of these claims have created considerable intellectual indigestion among hardcore scientists who scoff at such stuff, saying it falls into the same flaky realm as folks who talk to their plants to make them grow better.

But, on the other hand, these same folks do seem to have great gardens.

Who can say The more science progresses, the less it seems to know. Why does a perfectly healthy young man, like my friend Kavin, develop colon cancerand die within six months And why does someone else, who the doctors gave only three months to live, go on to live for another 20 years And who knows how much all the prayers are helping this friend who is currently in danger but showing good vital signs Its hard to understand these mysteries.

And perhaps we arent meant to.

From being a skeptic, I have come to believe that praying could be a remarkably useful thing to do. Im not sure what it does for the patientthe jury will always be out on that one. But I think praying has another benefit entirely. It gives those of us waiting and watching a way to express our caring and feel connected to the person we are praying for. Helplessness is the worst feeling in the world. I think thats why they invented prayer. It gives us something to do.

Prayer is simply a way to turn inward and upward. It can help row you back to a calmer centre, especially when the voices sneak into the head at night and whisper: What if she is paralysed What if she never comes back It allows you to hand over the really big jobtaking care of the Futureto someone more qualified to do it, like a God or a Higher Power or whatever you want to call it. And then you can get on with whatever needs to be done today, like consulting another specialist or getting the blood tests done or taking the dog for a walk.

Either way, its more proactive than sitting around passively and going hai hai.

Dossey says the future of prayer in healing need not be adversarial to science. Science tells people what to do, prayer tells people how to be. Its simply about using all your options. Prayer is more about holding a prayerful attitude rather than following any religious ritual. It can take the form of meditation, reiki, sending healing energy to the patient, Buddhist chanting, even writing out your fears and hopes in a journal.

Ultimately, its about honouring the mysteries. Claude Bernard once said: I have the conviction that when physiology will be far enough advanced, the poet, the philosopher and the physiologist will all understand each other. Things may swing this way. But they may swing that way too. In that not knowing, we can reclaim a tiny zone of hope.

Ten years ago, my mother was in hospital undergoing a major surgery. Hundreds of phone-calls, flowers and cards were pouring in from people all around the world, sending her their prayers and good wishes. I think they reached her somehow. I know it certainly helped me to find a corner of the hospital and sit there quietly with folded hands and pray for her to get better. And she did.

I think too that if someday I were lying very sick in a hospital, it would be nice to have friends praying for me. I would surely heal faster if someone cared enough to do that.

Maybe it isnt about prayer at all. Maybe its about love.

Simran Bhargava has been a writer and editor for several years. She writes a weekly column on the business of life. She can be contacted at