Can prayers heal?
That age-old question is at stake in a study conducted by an Arizona hospital, which seeks to determine whether prayer speeds healing and reduces the number of surgical complications.
Starting this week, 120 cardiac bypass patients at University Medical Center in Tucson will be the subject of prayers by a group of people who don't know them. A total of 240 heart patients will participate in the study — including 120 placebo patients — none of whom will know if they are receiving what are known as "remote prayers."
A second part of the study tracking the outcome of prayers done in the presence of the patients will begin after two years with a new set of patients.
The study's hypothesis that remote prayers heal evoked responses of both support and skepticism from East Valley religious leaders. The study also shed light on the increased support for patients' spiritual lives from the medical community.
"Healing of the sick has been part of every spiritual path and tradition," said the Rev. Adriana Cavina, director of spiritual care at Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa and an ordained American Baptist pastor who has taught community college classes on comparative religion.
"It is mysterious, but it works. It helps people whether they know it or don't know it."
Praying for the sick is an integral part of the prayers to be said three times daily in the Jewish faith, said Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, of Temple Beth Sholom in Chandler.
"You wouldn't have a service without having a prayer for healing," she said. "We can influence the energy in the universe by the words we speak and the prayers we put forth."
Anne Taylor, spokeswoman for the Christian Science churches in Arizona, said members of her church can seek healing solely through the power of prayer. This often happens with the help of practitioners who may not know the sick person, she said.
"Christian Scientists have been experiencing these kinds of healings for more than 100 years. There are more than 6,000 incidences of healing (by way of prayer documented)," Taylor said. "Many of those are remote or distance prayer."
The Rev. Lone Jensen, of the Valley Unitarian Universalist at Chandler, has seen the healing benefits of prayer and meditation by those who are sick or know the sick. But Jensen is skeptical about the remote prayer being studied in Tucson.
"The power of prayer is very powerful," she said. "But can you actually change what happens in the universe by praying? I'm very skeptical about that. If this is true it would change what we know about physics and how the universe works."
Likewise, Pastor Al Gephart of University Presbyterian Church in Tempe, wonders what the study suggests about those who have no one to pray for them.
"What about the people who don't have anyone praying for them? Are they godless? Is no one suffering with them?" Gephart said. "I don't believe that. I believe God is there for all who suffer."
The three-year University Medical Center project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is the first U.S. study of its kind on the healing of surgical patients.
It is building on a number of similar studies, including the 1986 study involving 400 heart disease patients at San Francisco General Hospital, which found that the prayed-for patients were five times less likely to need antibiotics, and three times less likely to suffer lung complications.
In the University Medical Center study, 240 patients slated to undergo cardiac bypass surgery in the coming months will be divided into two random groups. Half will be the target of a series of prayers; half will not.
Praying for the University Medical Center patients will be practitioners of Johrei, a spiritual healing practice that originated in Japan. Central to Johrei is the belief that a universal energy can be channeled through prayer to heal the human spirit and in turn, the physical body.
Johrei is nondenominational, and is practiced by members of all faiths, including Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and others.
Johrei members will only be told patients’ gender, age, date and time of surgeries, and how many arteries will be involved in the bypass.
They will conduct three 27-minute prayer sessions on the day of each patient’s surgery. Prayer sessions will then be held once a day for the next three days after surgery.
Neurologist Dr. Allan Hamilton, the lead investigator and head of University Medical Center's surgery department, said he is confident the study will not be skewed by "placebo effect" — or the positive results evoked because the patients are hopeful they are being prayed for — because all patients in the study will be under the same pretense that they may or may not be prayed for.
Also, he said the Johrei members will not be able to pray for placebo patients because they do not have enough information to pray for the heart patients' recovery, Hamilton said.
The demand for studies like this is part of a national movement in which physicians are integrating emotional and spiritual care into their practices, Hamilton said.
"There are patients who do see illness as not only a physical crisis but as a spiritual crisis," Hamilton said. "It's important for those patients that we're marshalling the resources to meet that crisis."
In a news conference Thursday, Aron Ralston, the rock climber who amputated his own arm in Utah, credited remote prayer for his perseverance during his ordeal. Ralston said he felt a surge of energy on the third day of his ordeal, which was the National Day of Prayer.
"The source of the power I felt was the thoughts and prayers of many people, most of whom I will never know," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.