You don’t identify as a “patient.” You may very well be significantly overweight, or have chronic lupus, or be dying of advanced lung cancer, but in illness or in health you are a person. You may consider yourself as a unique manifestation of the universal human spirit, One of God’s Children, someone created in the Divine Image, a humble creature that nevertheless carries divinity within you, or simply as a sovereign human being who will not be reduced to numbers, dollars, or component parts. You want to partner with a healer who can see those qualities in you, instead of addressing you as though you are synonymous with your disease, the procedure you just had done, the malfunctioning organ you harbor, or the bed number you occupy in the hospital.
Healing People, Not Patients gathers together ancient wisdom, medical science, and the experiences of one doctor providing primary, personal care to a mosaic of people of numerous faiths, languages, and cultures. It draws a portrait of a partnership, a medical covenant, using stories of teachable moments and past missteps to frame a model for healing relationships characterized by listening “with both ears,” asking good questions, and using spoken and unspoken language with care and respect. It explores the unique roles played in these relationships, not just by doctor and patient, but by receptionist, nurse, transporter and radiology technician, and how each can contribute to, or detract from healing. Finally, it delves into the reasons why you may feel like forming such a relationship seems impossible in the current environment – and explores how we might change that environment to make these kinds of relationships the rule, rather than the exception. It asks how it might be possible that all of us can be cared for by healers who see the person, not the “patient,” first.
Excerpt from Chapter 10, “Building a Sacred Profession”
Reach your hands above your head for a minute. Easy, right?
Now imagine that you are unable to do that, that each time you attempt to reach for something on a shelf above eye level, or wash your own hair, or put on a shirt, you are struck by a pain that makes you cry, “Aiii!” and that no amount of coaxing or convincing can get you to reach above shoulder level.
Then imagine that the same pain, triggered by even gentle pressure, affects not only your shoulders but also your elbows, knees, and calf muscles, and even the chest muscles on both sides, in the exact location where you might feel the pain of a heart attack. Every time you try to lift something, or something presses against you, you are not only in pain, but struck with the fear that you might be dying.
You might try to go to bed, worn out from the pain, but at night you have the distinct feeling that you are on fire, mostly in the feet but on a bad night, all over your body. My oldest son jokes about having someone spontaneously combust during a casual conversation but this isn’t funny; you actually feel like your skin is in flames. You’re are wracked by muscle cramps so severe that the calf muscles seem to be pulling themselves all the way around to the front of your legs. And if you do fall asleep, it is like returning to early childhood, when you were still afraid of the dark – monsters under the bed, strange noises in the closet, and fitful dreams of danger, people trying to kill you or animals trying to consume you.
Trying to gain control over the disintegration of your body is tough, because you’re beginning to feel like your mind is disintegrating, as well. Trying to learn a language, or understand the basic civics that will be crucial to securing your place in this new country, is impossible, because your memory has become like a sieve, with every new fact slipping through the holes in the mesh as soon as it‘s learned. You never went to school, but somehow back home that didn’t get in the way of living a normal life; here it’s an insurmountable disadvantage.
Not only haven’t you learned; you don’t know how to learn, or at least how to study. But even that wouldn’t be so bad if the parts of your brain that were educated, the ones that knew how to do real life things like cook, travel the neighborhood, or maintain a relationship with family members, weren’t also beginning to fail you. You cannot boil a pot of tea without potentially setting the house on fire because you didn’t turn the fire off in time. You flooded the bathroom last week forgetting to turn off the faucet in the tub. And this morning you went out for a walk and couldn’t figure out how to come home. When you finally did figure it out, you struggled mightily to open the door, until someone on the other side lifted the latch at last, to reveal that you had been trying to force open your neighbor’s front door instead of your own.
So you’ve come to seek my help. You’ve waited weeks, maybe months, because I’m a busy man, and because the first few times you called you found the phone system so overwhelming that you hung up in frustration and took a nap, resolving to try again tomorrow. But now we have our time together. I’m on the other side of the door, about to enter. I’ll have fifteen minutes to sort through all of these problems you share with me, read the text of your aching body through my physical exam, and settle on a remedy. Then you’ll walk back out into a confusing world, hoping you can somehow successfully obtain that treatment, use it correctly, and be sustained by it for the next three months until our next quarter-hour audience.
I am in this profession to help people exactly like you. In fact, I spend much of my time with people who describe almost exactly the trials you are enduring. Dozens or even hundreds of people feeling their lives eroded by this syndrome for which medical science has neither a name nor an explanation. Yet despite the similarities, each of you is unique. I cannot assume that because I have met you, that the strikingly similar words I hear from the next person will tell a story with the same beginning and ending. I would like to be present and attentive to each of you, one after another after another, listening deeply, asking probing but respectful question, and framing my words in a way that enlightens, heals, and uplifts. I would like to send you back out into a community that cares for you as much as I do, that will not put up roadblocks to you becoming well again, either by marginalizing you, undercutting my efforts, or placing me in a bind where my own self-interest is pitted against yours, instead of being aligned with it. But how?