By Jeanette Leardi
In the quiet hours of a Sunday afternoon, I watched him sleeping peacefully in his hospital bed, the silence punctuated only by the soft, intermittent clicks of an I.V. machine dispensing medication into his arm. The setting would be ordinary enough, were it not for the fact that the 46-year-old man I was sitting with for several hours while his wife was running necessary errands was my own doctor.
I had been trying to reach him, my primary-care physician, by e-mail and pager for about a week. Not an emergency, but because I live alone, I was wrestling with Living Will issues. It was an unusually intense flu season, and I had fears of repeating the experience I had had the year before, during which time I had fainted in my home from dehydration and when I came to, crawled to the phone and called 911.
For the seven years before that time, I was my father’s caregiver, and after he died, I began to wonder who would take care of me if I were seriously ill, or at least assist me in seeing that my last wishes were carried out. Hence the need to talk with my doctor about a Living Will.
But he didn’t get back to me. That was very unlike him, given our relationship. He was my 85-year-old father’s primary-care physician as well, and he had seen me through many of my dad’s surgeries and hospitalizations when I would stay at the hospital alone, without respite, nearly round the clock for weeks at a time. There, I focused my energies on seeing to it that Dad was well taken care of, often intercepting errors in the making by overworked or sometimes incompetent or apathetic staff. My doctor was a huge support during those trying times, always honoring my needs, addressing my fears, and advocating for my father and me.
This young man knew me well, probably better than most of his patients, because we worked together so closely on Dad’s behalf. He often found me on the verge of burnout and comforted me, even letting me cry on his shoulder, literally, from time to time, when the stress was overwhelming. And although 15 years my junior, he often demonstrated a wisdom belying his age when helping me arrive at decisions concerning Dad’s treatment. It was clear that he cared for my father in more than a purely professional way. After one of Dad’s recoveries, he and his wife even came to a musical performance we gave. And when Dad died, they were very moved by my eulogy. In short, this doctor was also our friend.
So when I contacted his nursing staff and found out that he was seriously ill and in the hospital’s intensive care unit suffering from an as-yet-undiagnosed illness, I was stunned and dismayed beyond measure. I was frightened for him and couldn’t imagine what he and his wife were going through –– the doubts, the fears, the frustration –– as test after test proved negative. For he had always been a strapping guy, vigorous, athletic, the epitome of health.
But in another way, I knew exactly what the challenges were. And, with his and his wife’s permission, I visited him several times in the ICU and later in a regular room to offer my support in any way they might require. Back in that all-too-familiar setting, sitting at his bedside, I was confronted by painful memories of those not-long-before months of struggle.
But in the midst of this intense déjà vu was also a powerful sense of the surreal. How many patients ever get the chance to be in a similar situation? Here I was, helping my doctor from his recliner to his bed. Getting him water. Covering him with a blanket. Answering the phone. Just being there if he needed anything.
At one point during his nap, he slowly opened his eyes, orienting himself. When he saw me and remembered that I was sitting with him, he quietly said, “Thank you,” and closed his eyes. I’ll never be able to express what that response meant to me, because it was I who was so grateful for the opportunity to return in a minuscule way some of the care he gave to my father and continued to give to me.
During that afternoon we had a long, poignant talk about a lot of things, including Living Will issues. We got to know each other better as people outside of a professional relationship. A few times he expressed his admiration for my vigilance and commitment to my father’s care. With those words, I could feel my post-traumatic hospital memories easing into a place of mellow perspective. And as I listened to him talk about his experience with this illness, I knew this new understanding was informing him in some profound, spiritual ways, adding to his already great competence and compassion as a physician.
There are those who would say that we crossed a professional boundary that afternoon. I highly disagree. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, of course, one should never expect a physician to get as close to most of his or her patients. Besides, many patients wouldn’t want such a relationship. And that’s fine. But modern medicine has lost a lot of its healing power through an overemphasis on the emotional distance physicians are expected to have.
It wasn’t always like this. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that country doctors would routinely pay social visits and eat meals with their patients’ families and attend their weddings and funerals. The mind-body paradigm proposed by René Descartes in the mid-17th century morphed into a mind-heart split by the early 20th century, thanks to many empirically based medical discoveries. But for thousands of years previously, and in many non-Western cultures today, such a dichotomy was and is considered an obstacle to the spiritual bond necessary in the healing process.
Today, the popularity of integrative medicine is driven by patients’ desires to be seen as whole human beings with beliefs, values, histories, goals, and dreams and to be treated in the context of a caring relationship. But they’re not the only ones who want to see a change in modern health care. Many physicians, too, are disillusioned and burned out because the “managed care” system of medical practice denies them adequate time and broader contact with the people they treat.
The wisest doctors I’ve known understand that the mind and heart lie not in two separate boxes but on a continuum; they believe each patient and physician should determine the optimal point of balance in their relationship.
I agree. Because, as more scientific studies in energy medicine, spirituality, and intentional healing are concluding, the most powerful, effective medicine is found in the connection between patient and healer –– the stories they share with each other and the ones they create together. And if you ask physicians, many would admit that some of their most accurate diagnoses and treatments have been inspired precisely by whatever deeper emotional motivation they feel and the intuitive and conscious knowledge they have of their patients’ lives, personalities, and needs.
Naturally, any doctor should know when feelings are clouding rather than illuminating judgment and thus should seek out and defer to outside consultation. I was completely confident that my doctor would act accordingly, should such a time arise.
All I know is that, on that Sunday afternoon, something important was happening for me and, I believe, for him. Something more than mere, temporary caregiving. Something profound, transforming, spiritual. The ancients had two words for it.
Jeanette Leardi is a NWNM Collaborative committee member. You can follow Jeanette on Twitter @jeanette_leardi. Her website is www.jeanetteleardi.com