Mind, Body and the Bubble on my Bellybutton

A skeptical Jesuit finds a holistic connection


When Dr. Hill removed his future son-in-law’s ruptured appendix two weeks before the wedding, it gave me a great line for the homily: “Salim is the only guy in history who is happy to see his father-in-law coming toward him with a knife.” It also gave me confidence in surgery. As I watched Salim and Bridget dance at the reception, I thought, “If Dr. Hill can make somebody that well, that quickly, maybe I should give him a call.”

Had to happen sometime. After passing fifty without ever having gone under the knife… it was time. The hernia on my bellybutton that used to be golf ball-size, was now a baseball. My waiting for it to fix itself didn’t seem to be working.

Dr. Hill looked at me and said, “Let’s see. You have to go to Alaska and help out in parishes in a couple of weeks. We could take care of this on Friday.”

“I have a lot this weekend. Alumni Weekend. A talk, masses,” I said.

“OK, then we’ll go on Monday,” Dr. Hill replied, noting the date on the chart. My fervent hopes that this could be put off until August were not working out.

“That only leaves me nine days recuperation. Will that be enough time?” I asked.

“No time is good for these things. Might as well just get it done,” opined the good doctor. “You don’t want to run into trouble up in Alaska. But it’s up to you.”

It wasn’t the hospital or the operation itself that bothered me. I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals… just never as a patient. No, what worried me was pain. I’m no candidate for suffering. I’m just a priest, not Jesus. I was a linebacker years ago — more apt to cause than suffer pain.

Fortunately I knew the hospital, Lourdes, in Camden, NJ, very well from my 15 years as a priest at Holy Name Church there. But this was new. Pre-op: EKG, blood and urine tests. A prescription for Percocet and suppositories (gulp!) for post anesthesia nausea… this was not looking good. As I got through the pre-op procedures, the head of the Pastoral Care Dept., Sister Rosemarie, an old buddy of mine, came along and said, “You have to meet Coleen. She’s a holistic nurse.”

On the receiving end

“Holistic? What’s that?” I’m thinking to myself.

Colleen says, “We give you guided imagery CDs. You do them twice a day and your healing is much quicker, and there’s much less pain.”

“Right,” I skeptically think to myself. Not wanting to be rude I smile and reply, “That sounds interesting.”

“And Coleen will give you therapeutic touch treatments,” Sister Rosemarie chimes.

“Right, more Oprah-esque, New Age mumbo jumbo,” I think to myself. “Hmm. That sounds interesting,” I hear myself say.

Hospitals are places where vulnerability and pastoral care meet, but I’d always been on the PC side of the equation. Now I’m going to have my stomach cut open, and through the haze of the strongest narcotic I will ever have taken, this holistic nurse is going to be manipulating my energy fields? Right.

Hospitals are places where vulnerability and pastoral care meet, but I’d always been on the PC side of the equation. Now I’m going to have my stomach cut open, and through the haze of the strongest narcotic I will ever have taken, this holistic nurse is going to be manipulating my energy fields? Right. As a minister, I’ll confess that being ministered to is not generally a comfortable position to be in, but the combination of having read a lot about quantum mechanics and absolutely hating pain means I’m willing to try anything.

So for a few days before surgery I do the guided meditations once a day. I never do get around to twice a day. (Hey, it was busy Alumni weekend. A Friday night lecture. Masses on Saturday and Sunday.) The imagery is pretty tame and predictable. Quiet yourself. Be aware of the parts of your body. Visualize the light pushing out negative energy. Nothing mind or spirit boggling here. Pretty standard meditation stuff.

The morning of my surgery Coleen spends a few minutes waving her hands over me. Soon after, it’s off to pre-op. Cool “gown-with-a-view” and funny blue hat. The nurse and anesthesiologist are friendly and more than competent. The IV needle stings as it is started on the back of my hand. Dr. Hill comes in and apologizes for being late. But I haven’t minded the wait. I’ve been happy to spend the morning reading; nothing pressing to do and nowhere to go. And I’ll put off the inevitable for as long as I can. Tell you the truth, I’d be happy if he calls the whole thing off and tells me to come back in August.

But damn., no getting out of it now. I’m wheeled into the room I’ve seen often on shows like Grey’s Anatomy and ER. Under the big lights in the operating room, my arms are extended as on a cross and I’m readied to be put under. A few jokes with the docs and nurses — “Hey, Doc, why not do some liposuction while you’re at it?” — and…

They must have given me some really good stuff…

Next thing I know I’m groggily awake. Soon I’m told it’s four and a half hours since I went under. I have a big bulge of bandage on my belly. And a plastic bubble drain filling with a wine colored fluid. Oh yeah. My good old O positive.

Strange. They must have given me some really good stuff because I feel the pull of the stitches, and the tug of various tapes on my skin holding everything together, but I don’t hurt. There’s no pain. There’s no nausea.

“Oh s*&t,” I think to myself. This is gonna hurt like a son of a *&%# when whatever they gave me wears off.”

¡Milagro! It never hurt. Discharged a few hours after surgery, I stayed with friends in the area and Coleen provided a second therapeutic touch treatment the morning after surgery. In the days after, I didn’t take even an aspirin. Was it the meditations? The therapeutic touch? Superb anesthesia? Excellent surgeon? Who knows? All I know is that I wasn’t sitting there counting the minutes to the next Percocet and I am as grateful as I can be for that. I’d seen too many people in pain in various hospitals over the years, and I’m amazed that my experience was so startlingly different. I had no real pain whatsoever. No nausea. Incredible.

There’s a lot going on connecting the fields of spirituality and health care. Instead of knee-jerk reactions rejecting all that isn’t narrowly and simply “scientific,” perhaps an open, adventurous, exploring spirit will serve us well as we cooperate with our culture’s pioneering healers. Sure there are a lot of kooks out there. But check out journals like Spirituality and Health or books like Peggy Huddleston’s Prepare for Surgery, Heal Faster, in which she estimates that 50,000 nurses in the USA have trained in therapeutic touch healing techniques. Of course, traditional practices are also valuable. Various pastoral means, such as the celebration of the Sacrament of the Sick, are still important; there’s no need to place different methods of approaching illness in opposition to one another. They can work together; and in today’s Catholic hospitals many teams are working together to strengthen and heal not just the body but also mind and spirit. Thank you Nurse Coleen. Thank you, Sister Rosemarie and Sister Anne. Thanks, Dr. Hill. Thanks, OR staff. Thank you, Jesus. And most importantly, thank God I didn’t have to use the suppositories!