I wrote this post in 2012 after reading a creative essay in a professional journal written by Dr. Scholten, entitled Kindness. This essay was especially potent because she has experienced being both the doctor who is appreciated by patients and then a patient who feels gratitude towards her doctor. So often we wish that our doctor could be in our shoes, could experience the emotional turmoil we experience, that can only be touched through kindness. Sure we need doctors that are competent and capable but there are times when these qualities don’t go far enough – we need something more. We also need kindness.
Dr. Scholten provides healthcare to refugees in Canada and she begins her story by saying that she had helped an Eritrean couple who were new refugees to Canada and facing an unplanned pregnancy. They came to her office for the last time before continuing with an obstetrician and the husband expresses his deep gratitude to her with a small speech. Obviously she had touched them deeply with her caring and help. She writes, however, that she is “embarrassed that I’m thanked for dispensing something that cost me nothing: no education, no honing of skill, no effort. I’d rather be thanked for diagnostic prowess or a deftly performed procedure.” It is clear in her statement that she underestimates the importance of her kindness and she believes technical skills and intellect are much more important. She writes that she forgets their gratitude as soon as she ushers them out. What happens next in her story, however, gives her a new perspective:
“Seated in my doctor’s office, I’m in the chair tucked right next to his desk. This is the first visit that I haven’t sat casually on the exam table with my legs dangling over the side, the first time I haven’t popped in for something routine like a vaccination or contraception or a prenatal visit, where we talk shop and I ask about his daughter, a medical school classmate. This time, I’m here to follow up a disastrous ending to a second-trimester pregnancy. He knocks on the door, steps in, gives me a long, sober look as he slowly closes the door, sits down. He sits in silence. I can’t look at him. Finally I force myself to talk, exhausted, crying, despairing and he listens. He leans over his desk, arms folded on it, looking down. Eventually I look at him, at his solemn white-bearded face, and I note that he is flushed. His eyes are damp. And I realize that he is moved by my distress, and I am completely taken aback.“
If we have a chronic illness or a serious diagnosis, we can understand her experience. We have sat before a doctor in all our emotional nakedness, overwhelmed by a mix of sadness, fear, shame – feeling very vulnerable and helpless. At that moment we appreciate “diagnostic prowess or a deftly performed procedure” but it isn’t all we need. At that moment what we also need, what helps us heal, what has a lasting impact on us is “kindness.”
This encounter had an impact on Dr. Scholten because she thinks about it repeatedly over the next few weeks. She continues to feel comforted by the fact that he just sat there giving her all the time she needed, that he was moved by her distress. She goes on to say, “His kindness is more dear to me than anything he’s done for our family over the years, even his delivery of my daughter.” Dr. Scholten seems to have been humbled by her experience as a patient, recognizing that she has “been wielding something powerful without any respect for it.” This power is the impact that doctors can have on us when they allow themselves to be drawn into our emotional pain for a few minutes.
We are deeply touched when our doctor hears and understands when we are experiencing the fear that comes when our body has failed us and we don’t know how to fix it – or maybe fear that our painful, broken body will never be fixed.
I found this post as I was reading some of my earliest post when I started my blog ten year ago. This was written when I was experiencing the fear, pain, sorrow and frustration of having fibromyalgia and struggling to regain a somewhat normal life. I was reliant on my doctor for medical help with medications and life-style advice but also for understanding and emotional support. Ten years have passed and I have learned how to manage FM, but Jim and I are now struggling with medical problems due to our aging bodies. I wrote this essay to help me better understand my experiences at the time, and it feels like I wrote it to help me express what I am needing now, ten years later, as I am dealing with aging.
I am also thinking that this isn’t just about the doctor/patient relationship but about all relationships. We need people in our lives who listen and hear us, who care. Neighbors Connie & Steve stopped to chat last night as they were doing their evening walk around the block and we were doing some work in our yard. They asked about Jim’s surgery on Wednesday and we continued to talk about health issues, ending with a laugh about how that is all we talk about when we get together with friends. Yes, we do talk about health issues because health issues are scary, and the older you get the more health issues there are. What we are looking for is kindness. The kindness that happens when people listen, understand, and care. The kindness that comes when people make themselves vulnerable before others by sharing what is making them feel vulnerable. These interactions involve needing emotional help and having others understand and respond in a way that says “I care.” What I beautiful gift we received from Connie and Steve, in our driveway as four old people chatted about life. It was a gift that made our life beautiful.
Scholtens, M. (2011). Kindness. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 467-478.
Copyright © Patricia A. Bailey and I Miss Me, Too/imissmetoo.me 2012.
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