By: Mark Pettus, MD, FACP, ABHM

Not long ago, I was walking through the aisles in the automotive department at our local Wal-Mart when a soft-spoken voice caught my attention. “Dr. Pettus, do you remember me?” I guessed this gentleman to be in his mid-forties. He was thin, walked with a slight limp, and had a warm glimmer in his eyes. I noticed he was wearing hearing aids, and as he reached out to shake my hand, I noticed a scar on his forearm. This was the familiar scar of a dialysis shunt used to treat individuals whose kidneys have failed. In a moment, it all came back. “Mr. B,” I replied. “It is great to see you. It has been some time since our paths last crossed.”

It was a cold, winter, Berkshire evening, over 20 years ago when my pager went off, flashing the familiar telephone extension of our regional emergency department. A young man had arrived by ambulance after having been found unresponsive by his father. He was not breathing well on his own and had to be immediately put on a ventilator. His vital organs were all failing, and his life precariously hanging by a thread. His kidneys had shut down and his initial blood testing revealed severe metabolic imbalance. As this is my area of expertise, I soon found myself at his bedside, fully immersed in the crisis and chaos confronted by this young man and his family, shocked, sobbing, broken, and afraid.

This critically ill young man before me, Mr. B, was an auto mechanic who worked in a garage his father owned for many years. He was confronting many psychosociospiritual issues in his life at the time that his father found him, face down, on the cold concrete floor of the garage. His marriage was on the rocks. He was drinking alcohol heavily in response to the pain and suffering he was experiencing. He was disconnected from all that had once meant a lot to him in his life. He had felt depressed and voiced suicidal ideation. Indeed, he had tried to take his life by drinking anti-freeze. Small amounts are powerfully toxic and often lethal.

Mr. B required dialysis and ventilator support for several weeks. He spent weeks in our ICU, and over time, began to improve. His kidney function improved, and he was able to remarkably return to full function. His nutrition, metabolic support and physical and emotional rehabilitation sustained his recovery. His family began to reconcile deep and longstanding wounds, and after transcending seemingly insurmountable odds, he emerged a survivor. The compassion of many gifted humans lifted the life of another human.

Twenty years later, in a most unlikely place, we were connecting our lives, once again. His hearing loss was an unfortunate consequence of this event, and one he seemed to peacefully coexist with. He was beaming with pride as he pointed to his dialysis scar, a palpable reminder of his “close call”. He was attending AA faithfully and had reconnected with his children, his friends, and his parents. He loved his work and was good at it. His depression was much improved, and he had recaptured his zeal for living. He prayed regularly and expressed a sense of renewed gratitude for everything in his life. He was surely in the moment and embracing it as never before. We smiled, embraced, met eye to eye, heart to heart, and went on our separate ways.

Spiritual wounds are often overlooked in the context of health care encounters. Spiritual wounds do not appear on x-rays nor can they be picked up on blood testing. Spiritual wounds may commonly take the form of:

  • Disconnection with that which brings meaning and joy in one’s life
  • Disconnection with self and others
  • Diminished sense of self-value and worth
  • Loss of purpose
  • Loss of hope
  • Isolation, loneliness, and abandonment
  • Suffering
  • Shame or guilt

Spiritual practice from the perspective of pursuing that which connects us to deeper meaning and purpose is known to be associated with a host of health promoting biological effects. All forms of spiritual practice including yoga, prayer, meditation, cultivating loving relationships, a walk in the woods, literature, listening to a beautiful musical composition, stillness, etc. are associated with significant health benefits. These include improved mood, decreased anxiety, better concentration, improved immune response, wound healing, diminished inflammation, reduced stress-cortisol response, healthier behaviors, more meaningful relationships, etc.

Cultivating thoughts, feelings, acts of compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, generosity, and deep connection with that which creates and sustains meaning in our work, love, and play is clearly associated with reduced risk of all common diseases. Longevity and quality of life are most influenced in this domain of being. It is at this sacred union of mind, body, and spirit that we are awakened to the notion that the greatest service to self is service to others. As we create meaning through awareness, discovery, and experience, we enter a state of being that is inherently self-transcending. There is no prescription that can be written that unleashes such a myriad of health and healing biologic balance.

Current mind-body science is enlightening, as never before, the biological underpinnings of our universal nature to love, to bond, to transcend, and to connect. As this fascinating research lifts the veil at the nexus of nature and nurture, we see powerful and primal systems that reward, motivate, connect, inspire, and heal in every possible way imaginable. When this spiritual garden is tended to with love and compassion, further growth of love and compassion are generated. And while it may seem intuitive or obvious that we are spiritual beings, it is increasingly clear that our design just happens to be perfectly suited for spiritual practice.

On this particular day in the automotive department at Wal-Mart, Mr. B reminded me of just that.

Dr. Mark Pettus currently serves as the Director of Medical Education, Wellness and Population Health at Berkshire Health Systems in western Massachusetts. In addition, he serves as The Associate Dean of Medical Education at The University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is the author of two books, The Savvy Patient: The Ultimate Advocate for Quality Health Care and It’s All in Your Head: Change Your Mind, Change Your Health. He serves on the teaching faculty at The Center for Mind-Body Medicine based in Washington D.C. and The Meditation Institute in Averill Park NY. He’s also a member of NWI’s Board of Directors.