By  Cosmas Odoemena

A close friend and brother had invited me to participate in a free health service organised by their church. When I arrived at the place, there was a “multitude” waiting to be attended to. After exchanging pleasantries with my brother friend and his pastor, I used Jesus’ words: “Indeed, the harvest is plenty, but the labourers are few.” They laughed.

In our society, people hardly go for medical check-ups, or even to hospitals. And when they have need of medical attention, they go instead to “chemists”, roadside and motor park herbal sellers, and quacks. Well, until things get bad. Only free medical services and free drugs could have brought that crowd to that church that day.

Perhaps you don’t know it, but there is an epidemic of diabetes and hypertension. Yet, many people don’t know their health status. One “lucky” man only knew he was hypertensive when he came for a police report after he got a stab injury on his hand at a bus stop from a bus conductor he never knew, and whom he never provoked! For one 70-year-old woman what brought her was a loose punch that her son meant for her daughter-in-law which found her abdomen. What of the landlady and her “stubborn” tenant who assaulted her? Or the man a policeman slapped. I can go on and on. God works in mysterious ways!

But on that day, many were told they had diabetes and hypertension for the first time. Many took the advice seriously, while some were in denial. I heard this statement often: “But doctor I don’t think”, on why they could have developed hypertension, to which I always reply, “Only the dead stop thinking.”

Primary or essential hypertension, which is the commonest type of hypertension, has no known cause, but there are risk factors, like family history, age, race, male sex, obesity, excessive sodium salt intake, low potassium intake, low vitamin D, excessive alcohol, tobacco, stress, and not being physically active. Hypertension and diabetes can cause the kidneys to fail, apart from the risk of stroke and other complications.

There is always the query on when they should stop using their drugs. My answer is usually “You must never stop your drugs! They must never finish!” Their faces fall.

Amazingly, patients find it convenient to swallow all sorts of “supplements” often sent from family members “abroad”, but find it difficult to take their antidiabetics and antihypertensives. But these medications should not be seen as a burden but as a life-saver. They prolong lives.

I let my hypertensive patients realise that they are extremely lucky to have the consultation and that they must not misuse it by being non-compliant. Many never had that chance!

Now, as we were rounding off, there was this particular woman who was in a white garment church apparel with a cap. What she wore was peculiar. Everything about her said she must be a high-ranking member of that church. I sensed her hesitation. But she sat down all the same. Then, I took her blood pressure. Even as a doctor, what I saw startled me. She had severe hypertension or what we call hypertensive urgency which is a very dangerous level. It was a surprise she had not had a stroke. I told her my findings and she said “But I feel okay, nothing is wrong with me”. But I told her that hypertension gave no symptoms, that when it does, it means complications had already set in. She continued to remonstrate as if that would change her circumstance, or even make me change my diagnosis. I explained to her the need for compliance that she needed to be observed in a hospital and that she was to do some investigations. For a moment my message seemed to sink. Her eyes seemed to spark. Then her lips curled. Suddenly she stood up. I must have touched a raw nerve I thought to myself. But I had done my part. My friend who invited me saw what transpired and had to lend his voice. But by then, I was already with another patient. It was after that my pal told me that the white garment woman was a “prophetess” in her church. But what bothered her most was how she was going to relate this experience to her church members, whom she had preached to that they don’t need to go to hospitals and that they would get “divine healing” in the church. Ignorance is a scourge. It helps propagate and perpetuate diseases.

We have had patients who we told they could only deliver through caesarian section retorting “I reject it!” or “It’s not my portion!” When you reinforce your advice, they go for advice from their pastor. It is the pastor who will decide the mode of delivery! A few who have good pastors will tell them the truth, that is they should follow their doctors’ advice. But unfortunately, in a good number of cases, the pastors will tell them that “the doctors are lying.” When they realise she can’t deliver after the woman must have gone through prolonged labour, they bring themselves back to the hospital, often with life-threatening complications. Some don’t make it back to the hospital alive!

A pastor once confessed to me that he told his church members to stop using their medication, but that prayer will lead to a “lasting cure”. He had also developed diabetes and followed his advice to his church members. But his blood sugar was getting very high, and he was becoming very sick. It was then that he accepted medical care. I told him that his church members may get away with it, but that for him God will judge him differently because apart from being a pastor, he was also educated. For it was with what you are and know that you will be judged.

Many pastors out of ignorance, foolishness, or both, put the lives of their church members in danger. They make reference to the Bible, but take it out of context. Jesus himself said it is only those who are sick that need a physician; he did not say those who are sick need a pastor. Jesus spit on the ground mixed the spit with clay and used the mixture as a “medication” for a blind man’s eyes. After Jesus healed, He told them to show themselves to the priests.

The early priests in the Old Testament doubled as physicians. In those days they wore hoods, and the hood was for those they healed to put the priests’ reward inside them.

It is thought that Leviticus is the first documented health code in the world. The book talked about personal and community responsibilities. It also touched on the cleanliness of the body, sexual health, and attitudes, that we should protect against contagious diseases, and that lepers should be isolated.

Hippocrates (460 BC-380 BC) founded Western medicine. In his On Airs, Waters, and Places published in the fifth century, he said, “Whoever wishes to investigate medicine properly, should proceed thus: in the first place to consider the seasons of the year, and what effects each of them produces. We must also consider the qualities of the waters and the mode in which the inhabitants live, and what are their pursuits, whether they are fond of drinking and eating to excess, and given to indolence, or are fond of exercise and labour, and not given to excess in eating and drinking.”

Around this period, Greeks practised community sanitation. Romans added improvements to Greek engineering in building aqueducts to protect water supplies. They were the ones who created the first hospital.

The Middle Ages, also known as “The Dark Ages, there was an ending of Roman ideology. Health problems were believed to have spiritual causes and solutions. Illness was thought to be as a result of sin which made the victim stigmatised. As the environment was not seen as playing a part in diseases, it led to epidemics.

With the Renaissance, it was realised that saints also became sick as sinners. People started rethinking nature and humans.

Blind faith in religion takes people’s minds away from conventional medical treatment. People refuse medical treatment both for themselves and their family members on this ground.

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Some deny medical treatment because their religion prohibits the form of treatment. While some others deny medical treatment because it will seem to them as if they do not have faith in God.

It has also been shown that those who are religious fundamentalists are the ones most likely to decline medical treatment even if the health condition is life-threatening.

A psychologist Richard P. Sloan in the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine said, “Religion may encourage magical thinking as people pray for and expect physical healing as if God were a giant genie at the beck and call of every human whim. Then, if physical healing does not come immediately, the person may be disappointed and disheartened, claiming that the prayer was not answered and that God does not care, or, worse, that the illness was sent by an angry, vengeful God as a punishment.”

According to Sloan, there has been resistance to childhood immunisation because of a faulty belief in religion resulting in outbreaks of polio, rubella, whooping cough, and other infectious diseases.

Diabetics and hypertensives stop their drugs in the name of religion. One woman developed a stroke in the church where she slept for days in search of a “permanent cure” for hypertension after she stopped her antihypertensives. She spent weeks in the medical ward.

Asser and Swan reported in 1998 in the medical journal Paediatrics that 172 children died between 1975 and 1995 when their parents withheld medical care on religious grounds.

In one church, some people who were told that they had been healed of HIV died after they stopped their medications.

After a Kathryn Kuhlman 1967 fellowship in Philadelphia, Dr. William A. Nolen conducted a case study involving 23 people who claimed to have been cured during her services.

Nolen followed the 23 on long-term follow-ups and concluded there were no cures in those cases. The report said, “One woman who was said to have been cured of spinal cancer threw away her brace and ran across the stage at Kuhlman’s command; her spine collapsed the next day, according to Nolen, and she died four months later.”

Miracles we ask for are extremely rare. And the kind of faith that will do that many of us and our pastors don’t have. Jesus knew that such a faith was hard to have, that was why he talked about a faith the size of a mustard seed, considered the smallest seed.

The American Medical Association says “that prayer as therapy should not be a medically reimburse [sic] or deductible expense.” ASA stated that “prayer as therapy should not delay access to traditional medical care.” Not doing so is attempting suicide.

We pray and search earnestly for miracles but don’t realise God’s countless unmerited favours — which we never even asked for.

That you are responding to medical treatment in itself is a miracle. Not all patients respond to treatment. That you are not a victim of fake or counterfeit drugs in your treatment is another miracle.

Sometimes God allows your disease to serve as a constant reminder of your mortality — and of Him! Without problems, many will not serve God.

For religious zealots, there is reason not to despair. God himself said, “Then give place to the physician, for the Lord hath created him: let him not go from thee, for thou hast need of him.” Eccl:38.12. God has made the physician to carry your burden. After all, you say, “After God na doctor.”

The logo for medicine derives from Greek mythology, the Rod of Asclepius. According to Wikipedia, it is a “serpent-entwined rod wielded by the Greek god Asclepius, a deity associated with healing and medicine. The symbol has continued to be used in modern times, where it is associated with medicine and health care.”

The original Hippocratic Oath began with the invocation “I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods …” But others link the symbol to the Nehushtan, a sacred object that has a brass serpent wrapped around a pole that God told Moses to make, so that anyone who had been bitten by a snake who looked at it would be healed.

The Great Physician Jesus endorsed the symbol of medicine, and indeed the healing and miracle in the medical profession when he said he would be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, to give life to those who believe in Him.

Religion can be good for the health. It helps healing, it gives hope. But we should not allow it to be a threat to our health. Even the scripture warned: “Don’t put thy Lord thy God to the test!”

•Dr. Odoemena, Consultant Family Physician, Lagos