Dr. Bernard Siegel, a retired surgeon and author of twelve books, achieved international fame in 1978 when he began talking about patient empowerment. His sometimes controversial ideas focus on holistic healing and the humanization of medicine. Bernie, as his patients call him, believes in miracles.
Deepak Chopra, who wrote the foreword for Bernie’s latest book, A Book of Miracles: Inspiring True Stories of Healing, Gratitude, and Love, says that belief “flaunted his disagreement with mainstream medicine. An MD who advised more love as a path to healing would have been in enough trouble. Opening the possibility of miracles was grounds for dismissal.” But that unwavering belief has given hope to many patients. Bernie was named one of the Top 20 Spiritually Influential Living People on the Planet by the Watkins Review of London.
Bernie spoke at the recent St. Vincent’s Hospital first Cancer Survivorship Sym-posium. We talked to him shortly beforehand about his life’s work.
When did you begin turning towards a more holistic approach to healing?
In the late 1970s I attended a conference by Carl Simonton teaching how to use imagery and things to empower patients. I thought it was a conference for doctors, but I was the only doctor in a room of 125 people. It blew my mind that no doctor would show up for this—Simonton was a physician; he wasn’t some quack.
Also, one of my patients said something that redirected my life. She said, “You’re a nice guy, and I feel better when I’m in the office with you. But I can’t take you home with me and I need to know how to live between office visits.” That sentence changed everything.
What is a Miracle?
My definition of a miracle is life; life is a miracle. If I cut my finger, I don’t bleed to death. I just look at what is built into us by creation to preserve us and protect us.
When we choose something that is not selfish, personal, or egotistical, but is good for the world, then the miracles happen and you meet the right people. Like with me—I’ve written twelve books, and I’m writing another one, and the only “C” I got in four years of college was in creative writing. Somebody asked me if I’d ever thought of writing a book after I’d given a lecture, and I said, “No, it’s not my thing.” But that person talked to somebody, who talked to somebody, who talked to somebody and then boom a book gets written and it ends up being a New York Times bestseller. I’d say that’s a miracle. I even wrote to my college saying they should raise my grade. They didn’t get my sense of humor and I got a serious letter saying they can’t alter your grades after you graduate.
Do you have any relatives who have suffered from a terminal illness?
My wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis about fifty years ago. I was told what was going to happen to her, and she’s sitting in the kitchen now. She has some disabilities, but, hey, it’s fifty or more years later and she’s here. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, too, and I was so peaceful and calm and just taking it one day at a time, whereas fifty years ago I was a disaster listening to the neurologist.
My mother lived my sermon when she was diagnosed with leukemia. To her it was, “I’ll follow my son’s instructions and I’ll be fine.” Sometimes she’d say she had to get a blood test and I’d ask why and she’d remind me that she had leukemia. I’d forget because she didn’t become a sick person.
Many of Your books talk about animals. what is their role in our lives?
In the Bible, everything God created, God thought was good. But a rabbi once said the word is “tov” and it’s better defined as “complete.” After man was created it doesn’t say “and God saw it was good.” Animals are complete, we are not. So I think the role of animals is to be our teachers, our role models.
The other thing animals do is provide relationships that keep us alive, and I mean that literally. Various studies show that if you have a dog you live longer than somebody with the same illness who doesn’t have a dog. They help us bond; when we pet furry things, our oxytocin and serotonin levels go up. And pets give us more exercise and more things to laugh about, and so forth. I can’t tell you how many zoning laws we’ve broken. We’ve had goats, ducks and geese in the yard, and snakes and chameleons in the house.
What is the most important advice you can give to someone with a serious illness?
I always say if I had to summarize everything it would be love your life and love your body. You want to get up loving life and let your body get that message because your body doesn’t see death as a failure or the worst outcome. Death frees you from all your troubles.
It’s St. Vincent’s first Cancer Survivorship Symposium. What does it mean to you to be its first speaker?
The greatest gift is to know that I’ve helped many people, and I’m still helping them.
The books travel around the world, and get translated into so many languages and I get e-mails from all over the planet. That’s the gift, to know that I’ve touched so many lives and that I’ve helped a lot of people. It’s being a coach, that’s the word I use. I can’t change you, but if you show up for practice, then you can learn from my coaching.
How do your healing methods fit in with medical treatments?
My hope is that we’re going to integrate all these things—mind, body and spirit—to really care for people and their experience, not just their diagnosis. It shouldn’t be: “I have a headache,” “Here’s a pill,” or “I’m depressed,” “Here’s a pill.” It’s about, “What are you experiencing? What are you going through? How can we help you with this?” Doctors have to be awakened to that. It really has to become part of our training. If I ran a medical school, I wouldn’t let anybody graduate who hadn’t been a patient. I’d say, “Okay you’re going to spend five days in bed in a hospital where they don’t know you, and see how you feel and how you’re treated.” So then they have that experience, they can share with patients.
What about people who disagree with you—how has that changed over the years?
Some say I’m crazy, I’m a crack, I’m a nut, but I threaten more because I’m a doctor. I’m not a psychiatrist talking about this. The medical community has definitely become more accepting because as the years go by things that were considered crazy and they wouldn’t fund research for—and then they criticized me for not doing research—have been researched. Loneliness, laughter, music, all kinds of things—and how they affect the internal chemistry of the body and its ability to resist disease—have been researched, so those things have become a lot more scientific and a lot more doctors are passing the word on instead of ignoring it.
But doctors still don’t know about learning from success. Too often when somebody’s doing well, they’ll go to their doctor and the doctor will say, “Keep it up whatever you’re doing.” But he should have said, “Tell me what you’re doing so I can pass the word on to other people.” And that’s what I’ve learned—there’s a survival behavior and that’s what I try to teach.