Dr Cynthia Sammut is a medical doctor and homeopath. Her holistic approach with patients led her to spirituality. Dr Cynthia also has a Master’s Degree in Spirituality and is now at a stage where she is putting everything together.
“Through my experience with patients and my own personal journey of faith I’m finding and appreciating the importance of spirituality in healthcare and how much it can help in the physical, and more so in the deeper emotional and spiritual healing of the person,” she says.
“Through my work I discovered that those patients who have spirituality and faith as part of their life, can deal better with their health problems. Studies also show that spirituality improves health outcomes.” Dr Cynthia explains.
A definition of spirituality
Dr Cynthia comes from a Catholic background, yet she has been exposed to different kinds of spirituality both through her Master’s course and also through a number of clients who followed other religions, were members of other Christian denominations or had non-theistic views of spirituality.
She describes how she perceives spirituality as the third dimension of the person: “To me spirituality is like watching a 3D movie, if you look at life in a two dimensional way - only through the physical and emotional/mental aspect - life-events may seem unclear, but as soon as you put on the ‘glasses of spirituality’, life takes on a different meaning. Life-events can be seen to have a purpose. As a medical doctor I studied mainly the physical aspect. Through homeopathy I became aware of the mental and emotional aspect of the person. Eventually, through these clients, I also became aware that people who were really interested in getting better and not just wanting to remove symptoms, were touching this third dimension. Spirituality can be expressed through religion but not necessarily so. It allows us to see our life, including our health, in a more complete, and holistic way. In this way illness can be seen in a different light. It no longer stops us from living but helps us to live with more integrity, even if it creates limits in some way.”
The spiritual way of healing
Dr Cynthia believes that the spiritual way of healing is where one learns to live with the disease in a healthy way. “It reminds me of St Paul who spoke of his thorn. He prayed to God to remove it a number of times but this thorn was never removed (cf. 2 Cor 12:7-10). There are various theories about what this ‘thorn’ might have been. Some scholars think that it was a physical ailment while others say that it might have been a person who was antagonising him. Whatever the thorn was, its effect was actually helping St. Paul to keep his feet on the ground, live with integrity and remind him of his limitations,” she says.
“Sometimes a person is going though illness and touches the bottom, realising that some dreams can’t come true. But in that space the person can meet his/her own depth.”
Dr Cynthia explains how experience showed her that spirituality goes beyond religion and touches the person very deeply. “This is where spirituality and health meet. I see this especially in cancer patients. In the process of cancer, sometimes families are brought together not just in the physical presence, but also through the sharing of spiritual experiences.” In the experiences written below, and others which Dr Cynthia relates, she describes how “when one deals with his/her spiritual issues, the person handles the physical issues in a better way.”
Patients’ experiences of the role of spirituality in healthcare
The mum who lost her young son to cancer
“I can recount a particular experience of a mother whose young child died of cancer after a long battle with his illness. I met the mother after his death and she told me: “We managed to help the child through his journey, to reach the place where he has to be.” It was quite an enigmatic phrase which, if taken on its own, made no sense. But her words taught me that within the context of faith, the mother had found a reassuring space even in such a painful experience. The child had passed away but the parents felt that what they had done had made their son’s short life meaningful.”
A lady suffering from a chronic condition
“A lady who suffered from a chronic condition, and knew how her mother had suffered from the same disease, didn’t want to go through the same suffering. She was desperately looking for some remedy. The condition persisted despite a lot of different approaches to treat it. During one of the consultations we started speaking about spirituality. This meeting prompted this lady to start the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. After some years we met in the street and she told me how these spiritual exercises had changed her life. When I asked about her chronic condition she said that, although the physical condition was still there, the peace which she had found through the spiritual journey of the exercises had alleviated the anxiety about the illness so much so that now it did not take up so much of her thoughts.”
Universality of spirituality and sacred spaces
“A French lady, who was a non-believer and favoured the ideology of the Enlightenment movement, was moved by the experience of peace which she felt while visiting the Carmelite church in Mdina as a tourist. Another client, who was a non-practising baptised Catholic also shared how, in moments of distress she still found solace in churches where she felt safe to cry and express her anger and tears.
When all hope is lost
Dr. Cynthia recounts a moving experience while visiting a patient with incurable cancer who was too ill to communicate. All she could do was to sit by the bedside and hold the patient’s hand. “The patient, who had asked for psychological and spiritual support, seemed to find comfort from this silent presence. After some time, the patient uttered a sentence which reflected that she had been thinking of the way she had lived her spirituality during her life. This seemed to help her find peace.” Dr. Cynthia says that this experience taught her the value of being present to the patient even when there seems to be nothing else one can do to alleviate the pain and suffering.
How can a health carer contribute spiritually in the patient’s life?
Dr Cynthia explains how a lot of work is going on to integrate spiritual care in healthcare. Tools have been developed to help the health carers assess the spirituality of the person. However, Dr Cynthia also says: “I believe that for a health carer to be in a position to address the spiritual dimension with the patient, they have to be on a spiritual journey themselves; the health carer needs to be in touch with their own spirituality even if the way their spirituality is expressed differs from that of the patient or is expressed through a different religious/non-religious practices. My experience has been that patients are more likely to speak about their spirituality and spiritual needs if they sense that the doctor is in touch with his/her own spirituality. I am on a spiritual journey and when I meet people who are also on a spiritual journey, we connect.
If the patient is not aware of spirituality, the doctor can help bring it into the picture. This sometimes helps the patient to understand what might be underlying the illness, and find ways to change and improve their health. However, I believe that the health carer also has to be sensitive to, and respect the needs of each patient. Not all patients are ready to talk about their spirituality or to connect with it.”
What’s special about being a health carer with a spiritual touch
“What I consider to be so precious and special about adding the spiritual dimension to healthcare is ‘the being with’ the person. As a health care professional, being aware that the patient is much more than that physical or mental ailment with which they are presenting, is important; being aware that there is a larger context surrounding each patient and their disease. Keeping in mind that the patient is also a spiritual being.
Embarking on a health care profession
Dr Cynthia believes that, for those who are just embarking on a profession in healthcare, remembering that the patient is a human being is crucial: “With the advancement of technology in healthcare we are getting more focused on the illness and the diagnosis. It is easy to forget that the patient in the clinic or hospital is much more than that illness; than the physical complaint. Sometimes patients complain about this attitude. The health carer has to keep in mind that patients come from a context, a context which includes a family, a community, a society. Keeping in mind this person within a larger context, helps the carer to acknowledge the spiritual aspect because it makes them sensitive to the deeper issues which the person might be expressing through the physical ailment.”
Dr Cynthia’s journey in spirituality
“My medical training and personal journey/studies in spirituality are now coming together. I am following a course entitled The Spiritual Dimension To Healthcare which is helping me bring together these two aspects of the human person. It’s like having two eyes, one which sees spirituality and the other the physical body/health. Through this course I am focusing the two images and gaining stereoscopic vision, to speak in a medical way! When we use two eyes we gain true depth perception. Similarly, this course is helping me to gain a deeper perception into health and healthcare. This leads to better assessment and management of each patient in helping them live their life to their full potential as human beings.”
Article written by Suzanne Vella
Photos of Dr Cynthia by Christina Gatt
Published: October 2019
Further reading on the role of spirituality and healthcare:
Addiss David G., Spiritual Themes and Challenges in Global Health, Journal of Medical Humanities, September 2018, Vol 39(3), 337-348. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10912-015-9378-9
Attard, Josephine; Baldacchino, Donia; Camilleri, L. Nurses’ and midwives’ Acquisition of competency in spiritual care: A focus on education. Nurse Education Today. December 2014, Vol.34(12), 1460-1466. doi: 10.1016/j.nedt.2014.04.015
Baldacchino, Donia. Spiritual Care: Being in Doing. Preca Library, Malta 2010. ISBN 978-99909-54-58-6
Chase, Benna. A Model Combining Psychotherapy with Spirituality and Religion in the Area of Palliative Care and Bereavement. European Journal for Qualitative Research in Psychotherapy. August 23, 2012, 29-38. http://ejqrp.org/index.php/ejqrp/article/view/38/35
Coyle Joanne, Spirituality and health: Towards a Framework for Exploring the Relationship Between Spirituality and Health. Journal of Advanced Nursing. March 2002, Vol 37 (6), 589-597. doi.org/10/1046/j.1365-2648.2002.02133.x
Fischer, John. The Four Domains Model: Connecting Spirituality, Health and Well-Being. Religions. January 11, 2011, Vol 2(1), 17-28. doi.org/10.3390/rel2010017
Kissman, Kris and Maurer, Lynn. East meets West: Therapeutic aspects of spirituality in health, mental health and addiction recovery. International Social Work. January 1, 2002 Vol 45 (1): 35-43. doi.org/10.1177/0020872802045001315
Mc Sherry, Wilfred and Draper, Peter. The Debates emerging from the literature surrounding the concept of spirituality as applied to nursing. Journal of Advanced Nursing, January 5, 2002, Vol 27 (4) doi.org/10/1046/j.1365-2648.1998.00585.x
Monod, Stephanie; Brennan Mark, Tochat Etienne; Martin Estelle; Rochat Stephanie and Bűla Christophe J. et al, Instruments Measuring Spirituality in Clinical Research: A Systematic Review. Journal of General Internal Medicine, July 2, 2011, Vol 26 (11):1345-57. doi: 10.1007/s11606-0110-1769-7.
NHS Scotland (2010); Spiritual Care Matters: An Introductory Resource for all NHS Scotland Staff. https://www.nes.scot.nhs.uk/media/3723/spiritualcaaremattersfinal.pdf
Puchalski, Christina M. Spirituality and Health: The Art of Compassionate Medicine, Hospital Physician, March 2001, 30-36. http://www.hospitalphysician.com/pdf/hp_mar01_spirit.pdf
Puchalski, Christina M. Vitillo Robert, Hull Sharon K. and Reller Nancy. Improving the Spiritual Dimension of Whole Person Care: Reaching National and International Consensus. Journal of Palliative Medicine. June 1, 2014, Vol 17 (6): 642-656. doi: 10.1089/ipm.2014.9427;
Remen, Rachel Naomi. Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal. Riverhead Books, New York. ISBN 978 -1-59448-209-0
Sheldrake, Philip. Spirituality and Healthcare, Practical Theology. April 21, 2015, Vol. 3(3), 367-379. doi: 10.1558/prth.v3i3.367
Vander Weele TJ, Balaboni TA and Koh HK. Health and Spirituality. Journal of the American Medical Association. August 8, 2017 Vol 318 (6), 519-520. doi: 10.1001/Jama.2017.8136