It is a special group, a mish-mash of medical professionals all with a common purpose: Honing the ability to practice medicine in a more empathetic and compassionate manner, which will benefit both the patient and the professional alike.
All meet to share viewpoints, share feelings, share the”what might have been.”
Sessions are first given over to close examinations of selected prose, poetry, art, or music. Reflecting upon what is placed before them, they come to formulate what the creators of these works might have had in mind, their feelings, their motivations for creating their works of art.
By listening to or viewing what is before them, group members try to comprehend the stories being told to them through these varied works of creativity.
Those gathered around the table represent all facets of the medical profession: doctors, nurses, chaplains, hospice care workers, and the list goes on.
By carrying out this process of close examination to detail and of reflection, medical professionals can improve the effectiveness of health care for their patients and improve communication among colleagues.
For one to treat a disease, one should first listen carefully to the story being told by one’s patient, to give the story the honor it truly deserves. Within this intimate account, there is much to be learned about the patient and what brought him or her before you.
At these sessions, I sometimes feel as though I am an interloper trespassing on holy ground. As an invited patient attendee, I have the privilege of being a frequent member of this group of medical professionals. Many meetings are filled with laughter or friendly pokes at colleagues, but during one recent session, raw emotion was laid bare.
One of the physician participants shared poetry that he had written about his work as a primary care doctor. A selection described the washing of the feet of a diabetic patient. The patient’s feet were encrusted in layers of dirt and deadened skin because of neglect. He was a homeless man living a hard existence with hardly anyone to attend to his needs, both physically and emotionally.
The doctor, through the crafted lines of his poetry, points out what many of us on the outside of the healing profession are not aware of: that medicine is often composed of the practice of selflessness and of humbling oneself in service to others.
The doctor also read a second poem. In this piece, he expresses his sincere regret for the loss of one of his patients. He bears guilt in perceived actions that he feels he should have carried out but did not. As he reads his poem, he pauses as tears well up in his eyes. The remainder of his poem expresses the feeling that many involved in attending to their ill patients share, that is, it is their job to “fix” all the health issues their patients face, even those which are indeed “unfixable.”
Healer, heal thyself, forgive thyself.
As patients, we often expect you to play the role of a god, but in reality, you are not.
You are as human as we are, although we often hold you up to a higher standard than most other people could possibly bear.
It was now time in the session to reflect upon our own experiences in dealing with death and then share with the group if so desired. A physician again shared his memories of losing a patient, and to this very day, the memory of this event rips his heart and soul apart. We all shed our tears with him as he recalled that painful experience. To forgive oneself is a difficult task. The burden of perceived guilt is not easily shaken.
I was blessed to be present that night, to be a witness of these special people at their most vulnerable moments. Hearts laid open, tears and emotions running freely. To view the utter humanness of the emotions expressed. To share a sense of love and forgiveness among them.
You, our doctors, often blame yourselves for not always having the answers to solve the riddles that plague our bodies and minds. You do your best to the full limit of your abilities. Hold the memory of your loss only for the purpose of enabling you to become an even better physician or medical professional. It is my fervent wish that memories from the past can be resolved and that healing and forgiveness can occur. By looking back, we all can finally move forward.
“Getting over a painful experience is much like crossing monkey bars. You have to let go at some point in order to move forward.”
– C.S. Lewis
Postscript: Working within the field of medicine is not a 9-to-5 job. Our doctors, nurses, and others in the health professions carry the burdens of life and death decisions on their shoulders and, more importantly, in their hearts on a daily basis. Let us all be appreciative of what they all do for us as patients. Allow them to carry on their work in an atmosphere of respect and admiration.
Michele Luckenbaugh is a patient.
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