Spiritual power

Between the cash-strapped NHS and the profit-based private sector, a more spiritual route offers rewards of its own. Janet Wright investigates

When churches and monasteries set up Britain’s first hospitals, patients probably gained more from rest and regular meals than they did from the medicine. Over the next thousand years or so, medical knowledge improved. But until the NHS was established, religious foundations were still the main source of inpatient care for people who could not afford doctors’ fees. Now backed by state-of-the-art medicine, their modern counterparts continue the tradition as charities  a sector that may expand if NHS provision dwindles. The private Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth in London, for example, puts all its profits into running free services, including a hospice and a home for old people with a mental illness. A Catholic organisation founded in 1856, it aims to develop the concept of caring for patients’ physical, spiritual and emotional needs. Physios working for religious charities often say they took the job because it was interesting and allowed them more time with patients. But couldn’t any private hospital offer the same? ‘The ethos at John and Lizzie’s is more of caring and less of being a money-making machine,’ says therapy manager, Natasha Price. ‘I think the general atmosphere here is better than in other private hospitals. The fact that it is Catholic perhaps makes a difference, but I think the main factor is that it is a charity. Interestingly, we treat one of the largest Jewish communities in London.’

Keeping the faith

St John’s Hospice takes patients from all backgrounds and has been caring for people with Aids since the 1980s. Natasha Price is a Catholic herself, but having a religious faith isn’t a requirement for physiotherapy jobs in any of the religious foundations. Indeed, it would be illegal to make it a condition of employment or to discriminate against staff on religious grounds. Nightingale House is an independent charity providing residential, nursing and dementia care for elderly Jewish people in south west London since the mid-19th century. Senior physiotherapist, Michael Stokes, is a Catholic. He took the job at Nightingale House in 2007 to extend the kind of rehab work he had been doing with elderly people in the NHS. ‘I felt at the time that there was much less scope for working in specialised areas in the NHS, much less variety,’ he says. ‘I wouldn’t have had the flexibility to do half the things I do here.’ The groups he runs at Nightingale House include traditional circle dancing to klezmer music  the distinctive Jewish violin sound of central Europe. ‘Circle dance has a strong link with the Jewish culture,’ he explains. ‘Many of the dances are very symbolic, and residents are familiar with the music we use.’ Poignantly, those familiar music and dance movements have proved a lifeline to residents with dementia. Many lost close relatives during the Holocaust and some spent time in concentration camps. ‘When some residents get elements of dementia, their Holocaust experiences come out quite strongly,’ says Michael Stokes. ‘Some start speaking German  dementia varies from person to person. Circle dancing is one of the main things I do that helps to calm aspects of dementia, to make them happy again. That makes me happy too.’ Staff at Nightingale House are given training in Jewish culture so they can better understand residents’ interests and concerns, and a Jewish physio on the team keeps them up-to-date with current family life. ‘On high holy days we wouldn’t do exercise-based treatments because it would go against Jewish rules,’ says Michael Stokes. He catches up on admin instead.

For one and all

Some healthcare charities have an explicitly religious focus. Alongside orthodox medicine, Burrswood hospital in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, offers Bible readings and the laying-on of hands in a Christian healing service. The chaplain and the hospital’s own church are Anglican, and the work day starts with optional prayers. But the chaplaincy team includes members of various Christian denominations and staff don’t have to be Christian. ‘Everyone who comes in can have a visit from the chaplain if they want it,’ says Sue Pople, head of physiotherapy at Burrswood and a committed Christian. She finds that the experience of being ill and vulnerable makes patients feel reflective. ‘It’s for people to pick up or put down as they want. Because it’s so available and there’s an atmosphere of being able to dip in and explore spirituality, people often do take it up.’ In others, the spiritual values are implicit. The Retreat in York was founded by Quakers in 1792, pioneering a belief that people could recover from mental illness. It now works with the NHS to provide mental health care for people with complex and challenging needs. Like Burrswood and the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth, it takes patients of all religious beliefs, and those with none. Underpinning their treatment is the Quaker philosophy of dignity and humanity. ‘The Retreat is very focused on well-being, including spiritual well-being,’ says acting lead physio, Melanie Turner. ‘It’s definitely about dignity and respect, treating people as equals. That’s central to physio work anyway but even more so here.’ The ethos of equality covers staff as well as patients. ‘The bosses are on the shop floor as well, not in an office in a tower,’ says Melanie Turner. On The Retreat’s eating-disorders programme, which uses cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to encourage patients to take personal responsibility, the whole multidisciplinary team, including physios, receive CBT training. It’s an added skill to help physios steer patients towards recognising the dangers of over-exercise and to develop a plan for safe levels of activity. Physios also work with patients to find activities that enhance their mood or aid relaxation, in a peaceful setting that encourages engagement with nature. A resident Quaker provides spiritual support to staff and patients if they feel the need. ‘In the NHS you only see the chaplain when someone’s dying, whereas here it’s part of everyday life,’ says Melanie Turner. ‘The resident Quaker chats to patients and carers too. And patients have access to various spiritual meetings such as hymn singing. It’s there if they want it.’ 

Body and mind

One concept that crops up frequently in religious charities is ‘holistic therapy’, taking account of non-physical aspects of well-being, as well as bodily ability. Sue Pople is happy to pray with patients if they wish. But she finds that being cared for, by someone with time to listen, may be enough to help them feel at peace. ‘As physios, we have the privilege of being able to use touch,’ she says. ‘Older people in particular are so deprived of touch these days. Touch is very powerful, and through it we can convey that sense of care and the love of Christ.’ At The Retreat, Melanie Turner says: ‘There’s a big focus on holistic working in mental health anyway, but particularly here. It doesn’t always mean achieving a big goal like regaining a full range of movement, but just helping that person feel a little bit happier.’ fl

Janet Wright

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