When Tucsonan Esther Sternberg, M.D., gave a talk on healing spaces in Lourdes, France, in June, little did she suspect it would lead to a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI or the opportunity to speak at the Vatican.
Sternberg, director of research for the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the UA College of Medicine, is internationally recognized for her discoveries proving the role of the brain’s stress response in illnesses. Before joining the UA, she was section chief of neuroendocrine immunology and behavior at the National Institute of Mental Health at the National Institutes of Health.
She has written “The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions” and “Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being.”
In Lourdes, a city known for Catholic pilgrimages and miraculous healings, she spoke of the inherent elements of healing places like Lourdes and how to translate those elements to hospitals, clinics and health care in general. She said the location — beside a stream, with beautiful views and majestic mountains — the legacy of healing, and simply believing all could activate the brain’s dopamine reward regions, dull pain pathways and ultimately contribute to healing.
Sternberg recounted her father’s fondness for the 23rd Psalm, which includes the phrase, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil.” It speaks of green pastures and still waters and, above all, endurance. Her father, a Holocaust survivor, had walked through the shadow of death in a concentration camp and was transported by the psalm in times of need.
“You can be in a healing place physically, like at Lourdes, or you can read the psalm, and be transported to a place in your mind,” she says.
On Nov. 15, Sternberg spoke about healing spaces at the 27th International Conference of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers in Vatican City, at the invitation of the president of the council, Monsignor Zygmunt Zimowski.
When Zimowski introduced Sternberg to Pope Benedict XVI, he spoke of her work, her studies and — to her surprise — that she was of the Jewish faith. “The pope held my hands gently and warmly, and looked deeply in my eyes and was totally present. I thanked him for inviting me and said, ‘I hope you will permit me to say shalom.’”
Sternberg says that to be one of the very few non-Catholics invited to attend the conference and also to be invited to meet the pope was deeply meaningful, representing “a reaching across the religious divide and acknowledging we are of different faiths but have the same goals to help people heal.”