When Doctors Speak Nonsense

Here’s an awful story: Three-year-old Brooklyn Hunter was shaken, beaten, and abused by her stepfather last month, shattering her skull and putting her in the ER.

There’s some good news: She’s doing better. She’s conscious of what’s going on around her. She knows it’s Christmas. She wants a doll, etc… and she’ll go in for another surgery soon.

But what stands out in this article is the boneheaded thing one of her doctors said:

Since the incident, [mother] Hunter and Albuquerque Police Department Sgt. Ferris Simmons, who first responded to the crime, have been at Brooklyn’s hospital bedside and prayed for a recovery.

UNM’s Chief Pediatric ER doctor, Robert Sapien, said prayer can work.

“It’s in the scientific literature actually,” he said. “They’ve studied remote prayer and it can be very, very effective.”

That’s the Chief Pediatric ER doctor?! The person who went through years of schooling so he could help kids in situations just like these says prayer is the answer?! Well, if that’s the case, Doctor, step away from the operating table and get on your knees.

Or, better yet, admit that “the scientific literature” on the efficacy of intercessory prayer is faulty (if not harmful) and then tell the reporter that your team of surgeons and staff, and the attention and care given to Brooklyn by those who love her, played a much more important role in helping the child than god ever could. Magic is not an option for her.

Maybe the reporter in question has to remain objective, but I sense a little jab at the doctor’s soundbyte in the very next sentence:

Doctors said Brooklyn has lost partial eyesight but it’s unclear if she will go completely blind.

Thanks for that, Jesus.

Brooklyn, I hope you’re under the care of doctors who know what they’re doing and who don’t depend on prayer to get the job done.

Just FYI, I contacted the hospital to see if there was a way readers could donate presents to Brooklyn. So far, I haven’t heard back from them. But I’ll post something if I find out more…

(Thanks to Jennifer for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Julie

    I believe there is something to the power of positive thinking, but Brooklyn would have to be doing the thinking.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/tpr007 Tony Meh Ryan

    makes me f’king mad

    • Anonymous

      Me, too.

  • Mrschili

    Please tell us that she’s safe, and that protective services are looking out for her future welfare….

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

      Gods, THIS. I just want her to be safe.

  • http://www.facebook.com Kwende Idrissa Madu

    Is there any way to help this girl?

  • J2j3

    Unfortunately being an atheist in the medical field you often have to do or say things you don’t believe in for the patient’s and the patient’s family’s comfort. When a patient asks me I am always honest with them but I have sat in on prayers and other meaningless rituals. However I would never claim such nonsense works or even talk to the press. I’m fairly certain it’s a HIPAA violation to even discuss cases or patients with the press without the permission of the patient. It’s shameful such educated people continue to promote these things. Interestingly I work at a Catholic hospital and the majority of doctors here are atheists or agnostic. 

    • Trevor

      I hate doctors.  They killed my dad.  It was at the VA, and his docotor was an atheist.  Doctors kill over 100,000 a year thru malpractice, by the AMA’s own admission.

      I will never forget that doctor.

      • fiddler

        That’s a load of horseshit. Doctors have only one goal, to make sick and injured people less sick or injured. They don’t kill people. Yes, occasionally their hands are tied in bureaucratic tape, but do not blame doctors for corporate decisions. 
        Likewise, mistakes are just mistakes, and if this is the cause of your statement you need to grow up!

        • http://k0ks3nw4i.blogspot.com/ James

          :
          I have never sat and prayed with any of my patients or their kins.
          Neither have I invoked God or the afterlife to console them. One doesn’t
          need to, I find.

          Trevor: How did they kill your Dad? So, some doctors are irresponsible
          or poorly-trained – and you hate an entire profession? Sometimes, their
          actions may result in the death of some patients (100,000, according to
          you) but why aren’t you counting the numbers they save? It’s thanks to
          modern medical science and practices that we can look forward to a life
          expectancy above 70 years… there are people living right now who
          should have died from old age decades ago.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matthew-J-Spart/1414300126 Matthew J. Spart

        Yep. One doctor screws up and all of them must be accursed for it. So,  the next time you get severely sick or injured, who are you going to go to?

      • hitchslap

          My apologies for the death of your father.

          The statistic you provide is dubious at best.  The number you cite is nothing more than an estimate and even then it is an estimate not borne out by, for instance, a study performed in 2001 published in JAMA.

          Furthermore, just what is the significance of the doctor you speak of being an atheist? (And how did you come to determine his stance on the question of god(s)’ existence?)

      • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

        Trevor, malpractice is not malevolence. Doctors often have to make treatment decisions based on insufficient information. Sometimes they are negligent, not been as diligent in gathering that information as they should have, and more often they have done everything they can to inform their best decision. Either way, when they make a decision that results in a patient’s injury or death, often it all gets called “malpractice.”

        Your father’s death caused you lasting pain. You can better honor your father and better heal your pain by putting the energy of your anger into doing  something that will help doctors do a better job for future patients.

        You can contribute toward research into whatever your father suffered from, or toward better training for doctors, or toward better systems of health care delivery that will reduce the likelihood of a repetition of whatever happened at the VA.

        You can light a candle instead of cursing the darkness. I hope you find peace.

    • Emilyb62

      I was going to say what J2j3 said….I might not believe in a god, but a lot of patients I work with do, and if the existence of god or heaven came up, I would pretty much go with what the family members believed.

      I don’t think it would be prudent to mention that I believed in nothing after we coded a loved one….usually I will say something along the lines of ‘yes, they are in a better place, they aren’t suffering anymore’. I have yet to run across an atheist patient, but if I did, I suppose finally,I could be honest-and stress that the person wil live on in thier memories…

      I really don’t think I would go out of my way to stress that prayer ‘works’….I wonder if the doctor is trying to state that the mindset of a person tends to affect the outcome of illness?

  • Trace

    So sad and infuriating.

  • Rich Wilson

    Did you ask the hospital for citations to that scientific literature?

  • Anonymous

    Hope the stepfather get huge prison time for what he did to her.

  • Justin Miyundees

    People engage in inane banter to make themselves feel like they’re doing something in the face of their own impotence.  When you challenge such pablum, it points up mistakes and failures and people get royally pissed.  

    Denial gives way to anger and here they’ll soon be bargaining for eyesight.  Next they’ll be depressed when reality sinks in and then either accept the reality or they won’t.  Hmmm…  

    I guess it’s just easier to just make all the same noises everyone else does.  It’s convention.  Problem is, in the meantime the shit may hit the fan.  It’d be a hell of a thing to spend your time praying when you need an MRI.

  • http://twitter.com/rolandhulme Roland Hulme

    As an atheist myself, I’d like to point out that posts like this are why atheism gets such a bad rap. Prayer isn’t to help the poor little girl heal – it’s to help those emotionally injured by what happened to her heal. If you think that won’t be of any benefit, you’re a horse’s ass.

    • Anonymous

      That’s not what he said though. He seems to think it actually helps patients. He thinks those “studies” are about the effects of prayer on healing

  • Sue Blue

    That little girl needs a different neurologist.  It’s the skill and hard work of the doctors and nurses that really make the difference – not magic.  Seriously, what’s the difference between christian prayer and some witch-doctor shaking a rattle and chanting?  There’s about the same evidence for either being effective – zip.   As a nurse, I think it demeans the efforts of both the highly-trained EMTs, physicians and other healthcare specialists who study for years and work long, grueling shifts, as well as the patient’s own efforts,  to credit some ethereal sky-fairy with “miraculous” recoveries.   If god is so loving and merciful, why didn’t he protect this innocent little girl from her despicable stepdad?  Why didn’t he make her mom smart enough not to marry the bastard? 

    From a professional standpoint, I think public god-crediting by a physician is irresponsible at best.  It makes him look less confident in his own training and medical science, and does medicine a disservice.  How many diseases have been eradicated by supernatural means?  God had thousands of years to wipe out smallpox, but it took modern medical science and a massive international campaign by  - you guessed it! – doctors! to rid the world of one of its greatest plagues.   There’s no denying the placebo effect of positive thinking, but that can be done by anyone – it’s not exclusive to prayer.  Family love and support is crucial, but it doesn’t need to be religious in nature.  In fact, I’m pretty sure a child would rather have her mom’s direct attention rather than have her praying with some guy.  When I work with religious patients, I don’t disparage their need to pray or have family prayers.  I will listen respectfully as a patient or family member prays – if they ask me to.  I’ll contact their priest, pastor, rabbi or chaplain if they request it.  Psychological support for the patient is important.  But if asked about my own beliefs, I’m honest.  I tell them that what they believe is more important to their health and wellbeing; they need my training more than my prayers.  It’s a difficult balance to strike, but a nurse or doctor must convey compassion and empathy for all patients, and so cannot express a preference or bias for any one religion or belief.   How will the Muslim or Jewish patient feel knowing that this doctor thinks Christian prayer works?  Will the Buddhist or atheist feel confident about this doctor’s competence?  I don’t think so.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

    *facepalm*

  • Dan W

    No sorry, prayer does not work. As I recall, there was even a study done a few years ago (funded by the Templeton Foundation) found that prayer had no effect on hospital patients. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/health/31pray.html?pagewanted=all

  • Ronlawhouston

    From the article:  “At least 10 studies of the effects of prayer have been carried out in the last six years, with mixed results.”

    So, what the doctor said about it being in the literature is correct.  Sure you and I may be skeptical but the doctor did not say that prayer was an answer.  If I were a caregiver and saw people praying I’m going to be supportive and tell them about the studies that show some effect.  What else are you doing to do, tell them, “stop praying you morons?”

    Come on Hemant – put yourself in the doctor’s shoes.