HE YOUNG WOMAN CAME INTO Porter Adventist Hospital’s emergency room seemingly possessed. Her tattoo-covered body arched off the bed and her eyes were filled with madness. She had overdosed on methamphetamine.
Dr. Ken Kulig was called in. As a toxicologist, he has seen many patients who have overdosed or tried to commit suicide. This call was no different, maybe just worse, he remembers. “It was as if evil were there,” Kulig says.
Kulig treated her in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and left the hospital. During the next few days he saw her frequently, speaking with her about what her body was experiencing and recommending treatment programs. Then he did something perhaps no other doctor had ever done for her. He took a faith history and, based on her responses, asked her quietly if he could give her a gift. She said yes, so he handed her a Bible. When he returned the next day, she told him with a smile that she had read the Psalms.
“I always felt that my job as a physician was to take care of patients’ physical needs,” Kulig says. “But I’ve learned that I also might be able to help take care of their faith needs, which are just as great, if not greater.”
Religion, faith, spirituality; these are subjects rarely talked about in most operating rooms or intensive care units. Yet studies have found that spirituality, in particular the practice of religion, improves a person’s health. People who attend religious services weekly are shown to have lower levels of interlukin-6, indicating a stronger immune system, according to a study conducted by Harold Koenig at Duke University. Another study found that the difference in the health of people with and without spirituality is the same as in one-pack-per-day smokers versus nonsmokers, says Dianne McCallister, chief medical officer at Porter.
“Given the scientific evidence, we are bound to try to get patients to stop smoking,” she says.
“Why wouldn’t we encourage our patients to develop their spirituality if it achieves the same scientific results?”
The help, however, must be offered in a therapeutic manner, no different from traditional medical advice.
“As physicians, our job is to give people what we think may help,” McCallister explains. “It’s therapeutic when the recommendation is about what’s right for the patient as opposed to something the physician believes in and wants to force on patients.”
Indeed, Kulig tends to patients’ spiritual needs in such a professional manner that many members of the nursing staff around him do not know he does so. Sharon Cross, R.N., an intensive care nurse and former ICU manager, didn’t know Kulig provided this to his patients—but she’s not surprised.
“He’s always willing to take the time to listen,” Cross says. “There’s something about his manner that makes you know that what he’s doing is in your best interest.”
Kulig estimates he has given out more than 100 Bibles since what he calls his spiritual awakening on April 20, 1999—the night of the Columbine High School tragedy. He is reluctant to talk about his story, saying simply that he is “doing what all Christians are supposed to do.”
Kulig now sees an opportunity to take this work further when he becomes president of Porter Adventist Hospital’s medical staff in a little more than a year.
Working with the hospital’s administrative team, Kulig hopes to educate physicians regarding spiritual care and how to use faith histories to achieve better patient outcomes. Kulig and McCallister also are working to create a physician well-being program that would help physicians care for themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually, so they can do the same for patients.
“Our hospital mission says we will ‘extend the healing ministry of Christ,’” Kulig says. “I believe we should extend our faith in a kind and gentle, nonjudgmental way. . . . I believe our patients would love it and their eyes would light up. I know because I have seen it so often.”
DeLona Lang Bell is president of and Michele Conklin is a writer for CMBell Company, Inc., a corporate marketing and communication firm headquartered in College Place, Washington.