Faith aids medicine: Heart patient shares story that gives him faith to cope with poor health. Recalling seeing The Good Lord coming out of a fog and telling him " not to worry about his mom, that it was not her time yet."


Rev. Gutierrez talks with Seldonio Zepeda. Gutierrez says people need to hear someone say ‘God is with you’ in the face of serious illness.


October 21, 2002 - Reported in the []. For heart patient Seldonio Zepeda, barbacoa on Sundays is out. But his faith helps him deal with the sacrifices he knows he has to make for his health. The 56-year-old Alice man must rearrange his entire life after major surgery and give up some of his favorite things to stay healthy. It's a daunting task, Zepeda said , made easier because of his faith in God.

Recent medical studies show that there is a link between faith or religion and physical health.

Speaking recently from his hospital bed at Christus Spohn Hospital Shoreline, Zepeda shared the story that gave him the faith that he and local health care professionals say now is helping him cope with his poor health.

As he recovers, he remembers 10 years ago when faith helped his mother, Anita Zepeda, then dying of cirrhosis of the liver, live longer than expected. "It was something I can't explain. I know what I saw and I know what I heard," said Zepeda, who has since been released from the hospital. "Things changed on that day in my life."

His mother had been unconscious at the same hospital where her son did his recovering, unable to eat, her stomach distended. Family members didn't think she would make it through the night, he said. He had tried to visit her but was unable to get into the Intensive Care Unit.

Man in turquoise robe

He waited outside, smoking a cigarette, near the hospital's life-size statue of Jesus. At about 2 a.m., through the fog, a man appeared wearing a bright, turquoise-colored robe, Zepeda said.

"I couldn't distinguish his face or his features but I'll never forget that robe," he said. "He told me not to worry about my mom, that it was not her time yet. I took my glasses off and wiped my eyes and looked again, but he was gone."

The next morning, Anita Zepeda awoke, feeling better and asking to eat lunch, her son said. "The Lord Jesus talked to you last night," were his mother's first words to him when he walked into her room. "My mom believed in the Good Lord a lot. When she died, she was ready. She said, 'We had talks, me and the Good Lord.' "

Surprising some, his mother lived for more than a year after her son had seen the man in the turquoise robe. Zepeda said that he never saw the man in the turquoise robe again, and his family and friends still don't believe him to this day. "I still say, 'Who was that man?' " Zepeda said. "I don't know, maybe it was the Good Lord . . .'' he said.

The Rev. Jose Gutierrez, a Catholic priest and a chaplain with the Christus Spohn Health System, said Zepeda and his mother, who he also had administered to, were comforted by their faith. He said faith also can quell a person's fears, help patients find peace and has a measurable impact on recovery.

"It's kind of simple," Gutierrez said. "Sometimes, we need to be told, 'God is with you.' Imagine if you go into surgery and you are at peace with God, you are going to do much better." Colleen Altenburg, a director with Vista Care Hospice, said case studies show patients who are facing death want three things: to be at peace with God, not to burden others and not to die in solitude.

'Fewer physical symptoms'

"Ninety percent of people die from protracted terminal illness," she said. "It's not sudden like a car accident, you can predict they are going to die. We know that." Yet how well is society really caring for those who are facing death, she asked. "There's a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear and worry," Altenburg said. Having faith helps, she said.

"I can't find a study that says that's not true," she said. "People feel less anxiety and display fewer symptoms." For Altenburg, the proof is in more than just medical studies and experience in the hospice care industry. Her mother, who died about two years ago, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and given a 30 percent chance of survival.

"Her oncologist said, 'We've got a really great team going on, it's you and me and God, and we're going to beat it,' " Altenburg said. Her mother took aggressive measures, went through chemotherapy and didn't even lose her hair. The cancer retreated. "When I saw it work, I couldn't help but believe it," she said. "I think it gave her some inner strength when she really wanted to give up. You can't help but truly believe that."

Medical studies, including two done at Brown University and Duke University, have shown in a quantifiable manner how people with strong religious beliefs or a connection to a church often use less medication after surgery, are discharged from the hospital sooner and heal faster.

But for many health-care providers the time that faith can have the greatest impact is when a person is facing long-term illness or even death. There is little scientific evidence to support the assertion but there are a lot of anecdotal reports from doctors, nurses and hospice care workers.

Christus Spohn Memorial Hospital Emergency Room Dr. David Blanchard, while he has no statistical proof, said he has observed among the most critical patients that those with a spiritual connection or religious beliefs have fared better when dealing with trauma.

'He knew . . . she was there'

Blanchard recently cared for a man who was involved in a motorcycle crash who arrived at the hospital in critical condition. The man waited for his wife to arrive before he died, he said. "He knew and sensed that she was there," Blanchard said. "You can't explain that. I can't quantify it but individuals with a strong connection to their spiritual self are better postured for healing, heal quicker and there's hope at the end of the tunnel."

Further proof for Blanchard is people who suffer near death occurrences and report out of body experiences. "These people do quite well in their disease processes," he said. "The Lord wasn't quite ready for them yet . . . It makes believers out of them."

Bonnie Burnett, director of Christus Spohn Health System's Spiritual Care Department, said faith plays an important role for those facing death. "I think death is scary," she said. "When I stand in that room with a person who is dying, it's scary. It's scary for everyone no matter what religion, or how faithful, or how strong their beliefs."

But it can be less scary if that person has come to terms with God, she said. Chaplains can help with that process. "In a hospital it's a pretty captive audience but they're not there to postulate," Burnett said. "They're there to help the family and the patient grab at the faith and support that they need.

"We've lost the ability as a culture to listen to people's sadness and grief as they lay there dying."