Friday, June 09, 2006

Doctor, heal thyself

Here’s an interesting little story as told by Michael Josephson:
Doctoring With a Heart 456.4

When you visit a medical specialist, an emergency room or a patient in the hospital, are you ever struck by a sense that many doctors are so focused on the scientific aspects of diagnosis and treatment of illness or injury that they ignore, maybe even become annoyed by, things like pain, fear or anxiety?

In her book "Medicine as Ministry," Dr. Margaret Mohrmann, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia , proposes a dramatically different perspective. If accepted, it could drastically change the nature of medical training and treatment.

She contends that doctors tend to view their roles and responsibilities too narrowly. The ultimate object of medicine, she says, is not just to diagnose and cure disease, but to alleviate suffering. In other words, doctors should see themselves as healers, not merely scientists.

"The practice of the ministry of medicine," she adds, "is the practice of paying attention." Being attentive means sensing, treating seriously and responding appropriately to the myriad feelings that inevitably accompany illness and injury.

In her view, the most needed remedy for the kinds of suffering doctors face daily is not more or better painkilling drugs, but more genuine caring. She says doctors should listen more even if it makes them weep. She believes true compassion and empathy are healing agents for pain and anxiety. Genuine gestures of concern -- from a comforting squeeze of the hand to a follow-up phone call or visit -- can be as important as prescriptions and surgical procedures.

I think she's right. It takes a kind of moral courage for a doctor to keep an open heart. But what a huge difference it would make.

This is Michael Josephson reminding you that character counts
I find this interesting, because (although I haven’t read her book) she seems to be referring to some basic Buddhist concepts here (or perhaps they are simply inherent human concepts) such as to “alleviate suffering”, show loving compassion, etc. Also interesting because she recommends doctors treat their patients with “genuine caring” and “an open heart”. Most doctors are trained, either explicitly or through practical defense mechanisms, to do quite the opposite, so as to protect them from the vicissitudes of life (and death). I imagine the break room conversation for the new intern to be something like: “Don’t get to close to your patient”. “You need to remain independent and detached, or this job will eat you up inside”. “You can’t save everyone, so don’t kill yourself trying.”

Yet I have come to believe that they can in fact detach themselves from this movie of life and death, tragedy and victimhood, and terminal illnesses that can just as likely grab hold of the saint as the sinner. By seeing life for what it really is — its nondual nature, doctors (and the rest of us) can both operate in this world (excuse the pun) and remain somewhat detached from its drama. They (and we) can express loving kindness, incredible presence, and complete compassion without being consumed by the emotion, or mental constructs such as “the unfairness of it all”.

So what I find interesting, is that such practices which I relate to the Buddha (that's his hand in the picture above -- yes, a tenuous connection I know) would also help someone on the Western scientific cutting edge like our medical doctors do their jobs better (which should indeed be about healing rather than treatment, and where possible, healing as much of the whole person as he or she is ready for).

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