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Thinking Aloud; The role Of Faith In Chronic Disease management

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“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.” Martin Luther King Jr.

Ever since the passing of my mother in the middle of 2015, I have battled with my conscience in an effort to understand the impact of religious beliefs on health, disease state and healing. In this intellectual health battle, I have read, researched and reflected. As a health professional, I have always known that diseases can be broadly categorised into two. Acute diseases which can often be cured with an appropriate cause of treatment and chronic diseases that on diagnosis can only be managed throughout the life of the patient.

In a country where life expectancy is increasing, our pattern of disease burden has also seen a significant shift, mimicking those of more developed countries. As a result, the burden of chronic diseases currently has superseded acute diseases. The days when malaria, diarrhoeal diseases, respiratory diseases etc. were the predominant killers has been replaced by strokes and heart attacks. This has led to a spike in sudden unexplained deaths, a spike that some have attributed to the will of God.

It is estimated that 65 percent of adults over the age of forty worldwide have at least one chronic condition, and 42 percent live with more than one. This new reality challenges the conventional wisdom of healing as many who believe in miracles would want us to accept. For these people, it is not acceptable to explain that no amount of pray will heal one of diabetes, hypertension, angina, asthma etc. and to buttress the point that this is why we are endowed with brains and specialisations in the field of medicine to manage such conditions. To them, their God is able to undertake every endeavour and all can be left to his will.

Their warped logic is further entrenched by many faith practitioners who advertise their ability to cure diseases, many of which medical science and research can only manage. Even more intriguing is the fact that, some of these men and women of faith are middle-aged adults too and are often afflicted by chronic diseases. The irony, however, is that they seek medical help, adhere to their medication whilst promising signs and wonders for the ailments of their followers. Should the unexpected happen, resulting in any of their congregants’ untimely death, they explain it away saying, “God knows best.” If this phrase sufficed why then are they not leaving their own health in the hands of their maker?

I have struggled with dealing with such open deceit and utterances and for a while managed my struggle by avoiding the conversation. Sadly, many lives are being lost unnecessarily as a result of this misconception that I have chosen to take the bait and address the subject. There is a lot of literature available regarding the role of faith in healthcare and the management of chronic diseases especially. All of which points to the fact that faith only acts as an adjunct to the management provided by conventional healthcare. This faith has been shown not only to be religious but a general belief that a positive outcome will result. Some have put their faith in the medics based on researching their achievements they have come to believe in their ability. Consequentially, they have had outcomes from treatment that has even defied the expectations of medical science.

Evidence abounds that receiving a diagnosis of a chronic disease and adapting one’s life to the new reality and treatment, requires a strength of willpower and determination. This is often a real test of faith and many in this state of confusion and flux fall on all sorts. It is often important at this point that medics are clear in their communication and mannerisms regarding the path ahead. Depending on the seriousness of the chronic disease, it is important that patients are made aware of the intended treatment and the need to stay the cause. It may be helpful if at this point medics broach the subject of faith and have a discussion around its place overall.

I have often used a simple cautionary note that appears on medication labels for most chronic conditions (do not stop taking this medication unless on your doctor or pharmacists advice) as a starting point. I have often emphasised that it is not for nothing that this caution is in place. I further state that quality of life will be greatly enhanced and risk of untimely death substantially reduced if medical advice and treatment regimens are adhered to.

I maintain that we need to dispel the notion that every disease has a cure. In doing this, the acknowledgement must be made that we cannot use the same repair mood approach used for all things Ghanaian including our cars and roads as a benchmark for our health. In health a breakdown is not only an inconvenience, it could mean a fatality and many of us have experienced this in real-time.

The thought that we can pray our way out of chronic ailments without medical help or that a miracle can cure us is just suicidal and lazy. It is an admonition of our education and intransigently disrespectful to human intelligence. Some have argued that it is even a betrayal of religion and faith. It is also an indictment of humankind and the advances made in medical science. Financially, it has huge cost implications that many are ill prepared for in the times of need. Emotionally, it can put loved ones into serious distress and result in substantial inconvenience. To rely on faith and subject us all to substantial pain is just selfish and inward looking.

The many unexplained deaths, heart attacks and strokes amongst able bodied middle aged Ghanaians are not because suddenly the level of sorcery has accentuated, definitely not. It is a combination of our inability to routinely check our health status, a failure to comply with medical advice when diagnosed and a belief that there are quick fixes and miracles in life that never materialise. This Russian roulette is one that must change and for me, the easiest fix is the deceit of faith. The time to checkmate faith healers and practitioners who promise to cure all but kill many is long overdue.

My late mum had this conflict of faith and I experienced then, at first-hand how difficult it was to convince even the well-educated that faith was only an adjunct in this world of abundance of medical knowledge. It was extremely difficult to make her understand that her God endowed her with the ability to have children with the knowledge and will and that was what she needed most. To her, everything could be cured by God. For most times it worked but ultimately, it took a toll on her health. To think that three years after her dimes, the country is battling with this conflict is heart-wrenching. It also buttresses my belief that our gullibility as a people may be one of the major contributors to our poor health outcomes.

Through this piece, I seek to transform my battle into a creative force and to empower those currently caught up in this conflict that faith can coexist with chronic disease management and that a lack of healing is not an indicator of one’s creator forsaking them. In fact, the ability of medical science to prolong life even in the presence of chronic diseases may be the biggest indicator that whoever your creator is, he ensured that you had a better quality of life.

My thoughts may be shared by only a minority in a country that is religiously entrenched and resigned to faith but I am also minded by the words of Margaret Mead,

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens, can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” This is why I cannot sit by and see blind faith obliterate middle-aged Ghanaians in the prime of their lives.

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