Hires_Lady Joy_VillarealAcrylic Painting: “Lady Joy” by Daniel Villarreal, PhD

I grew up in a religious city. Faith was something you wanted. When something bad happened, people freely said, “I’ll pray for you.”

“I’ll pray for you” was always complicated for me. My family of physician-scientists taught me to value science and medicine above almost anything else, but I felt comfort in the pervasive faith of my Midwestern community.

Throughout my life, I watched my mother suffer through heartbreaking illness.  Despite her training as a physician and access to medical care, the illness kept progressing. We had science and medicine on our side, but I felt powerless as a child in the face of my mother’s disease. I found ease in being told, “I’ll pray for you.”

When medical intervention couldn’t keep my brother alive after an accident, “I’ll pray for you” helped me in a way that science could not. I relied on my community for support. They had faith in me, and we all had faith in something bigger.

I am still struck by the beauty of “I’ll pray for you.” Even now as I train to become a physician, I still feel that way.  The phrase recognizes that one person cannot fix everything.  

Since leaving home, my relationship with prayer has become more complicated. I awkwardly tell anyone not from my hometown that I’ll send them love or good vibes when they are suffering.

I found what feels like a comfortable hybrid when I tell suffering people that I’ll be “thinking of them.” This feels okay, somehow inoffensive. I say, “I hear you, it’s bad, I have your back, and I want you to know I’m hoping for you.”  

Beyond asking a patient at intake about their spiritual or religious leanings, the topic is not discussed in medicine.  But how can I understand patients without talking about it? I would never tell a patient that I would pray for them unless they asked me to. Then, I would.

For me, it’s not about God, it’s about wanting to feel like there is something beyond science and medicine.  I want to feel comfortable praying again. I want to feel like it’s okay to resign myself to a higher plan or an agenda that is not determined by medical protocol and is not my own.

Katie Magoon is a second year medical student at Penn.

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