“Notes from a Healer” — Carving Out a Legacy

The practice of medicine is based on empirical science; the art of medicine encompasses subjective intuition. To practicing clinicians, their words might appear to count for little in the therapeutic encounter; yet we must not underestimate the power of the spoken word to initiate the healing process in the patient.

The latest installment of Notes from a HealerCarving Out a Legacy — is now online, newly published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine is an online clearinghouse for manuscripts dealing with the humanities and medicine.

Some good things take time

Some good things take time.

That was the subject line of the e-mail that popped into my Inbox yesterday morning, announcing that my former high school running coach was to be inducted into the school sports hall of fame.

Over the course of a 38-year career, this man was instrumental in molding talented runners—first boys, and then later both boys and girls—into championship teams. I had been a member of those first teams that he coached, in both cross country and track and field. My senior year, for the first time in the history of the school, our track team ran undefeated for the season; and we won the district meet. Looking back, although he would deny it, I would say that much of the credit for those performances belonged to him.

The New York Times ran a recent piece praising the coaching style and career of Tom Donnelly, Haverford College’s men’s cross-country and track coach. According to the article: “Donnelly has developed a reputation as something of a spiritual running guru who molds teams of decent but not exceptional high school athletes into elite college runners.” He is quoted as saying: “Being a truly committed member of a team can be a highly valuable learning experience.”

I would echo Mr. Donnelly’s observation, because in my youth I found it to be true. And although I have a mountain of respect for Mr. Donnelly, in my opinion he doesn’t have anything up on my high school running coach, who taught kids self-confidence through hard work and core values of determination and mutual respect. I’m certain that I speak for countless runners who came up through the ranks in my alma mater over the past four decades.

I fired off a congratulatory e-mail to him that afternoon. Later that evening he called to thank me for the note, to reminisce about former team members and times, and to find out how I was recuperating from the injuries I incurred during my hiking accident eight weeks ago.

I told him that I had traded my cast for a walking splint last week, that I was now able to get about on crutches with some weight bearing on the leg, that the fracture in my hand had healed, and that I would be returning to work the week of Thanksgiving. Like any coach, he was happy to hear it.

Some good things just take time.

The stories we tell

We all have stories to tell. While some of the tales we spin are about other folks, perhaps the most intimate sagas we know concern ourselves. Many times they are also the most poignant.

In my professional role as a healer, I maintain that, although we are all broken in some way, we do have the capacity to experience substantial healing — both by telling our story and by listening to the stories of others.

In this instance I use the word healing in the Old English sense of the word: becoming whole in body, mind and spirit.

In the words of professional storyteller Carmen Agra Deedy: “Some of our stories are told from the stage. Some are told in a small group, perhaps over a glass of wine in the evening. Some are told to one intimate friend, just once. And some we can only whisper to the Stygian darkness in the middle of the night.”

At the recent caregivers’ seminar at the Mason Hill retreat center in Cheshire, Massachusetts, those that made formal presentations as well as those in attendance all had a story to tell.

When I spoke to the group of caregivers, standing on crutches, it all came together: brokenness, healing; broken bones and casts; an abstract painting of a piece of cloth intricately folded and the line from Naomi Nye’s poem Kindness about following the thread of sorrow until you can see the size of the cloth; hope for healing through service to others.

I like to think that everyone came away enriched in some way. I know I did.

In a word: hope

I ask the young man seated at table if I can join him for breakfast. He acknowledges my request with a nod, reminiscent of a small bow. I introduce myself, offer him my hand. “My name is Shinji,” he says.

“Ah, yes,” I say, “you will be speaking this afternoon, no? What is your presentation about?”

“I will be talking about Thoreau’s vision of democracy,” he tells me. “I will try to relate an essay by Terry Tempest Williams, The Open Space of Democracy, with Thoreau’s writings; specifically using the idea of Hegel’s dialectic.”

That’s quite a proposition, I think to myself. Already my head is spinning. Thankfully, I’ve had my morning cup of coffee. I dig down deep, searching my memory banks for Hegel, Hegelian, dialectic—and I come up with thesis, antithesis and synthesis. I speak the words, and Shinji smiles. “Ah, you know!” Now we are on the same page.

I listen as Shinji expounds his thoughts on Williams’ essay and its relation to Thoreau’s method of argumentative prose, both Hegelian at core.

“You know, Terry Tempest Williams first delivered her essay as a commencement address at the university in Utah,” Shinji tells me. “She was raised a Mormon, but she told her audience that, after reading Thoreau, she had become a transcendentalist.”

I raise my eyebrows. “I’m guessing that that was probably not well received.”

“It takes courage to speak your mind,” Shinji says.

“How did you come to study Thoreau?”

“Thoreau is very popular in Japan,” Shinji says. “Mostly because of Hiroshima.”

“Hiroshima?”

“Yes. Hiroshima created many pacifists among the Japanese people. Unfortunately, now our government has chosen to follow the U.S.A. no matter where it leads.”

“I take it that many Japanese are not in favor of the war in Iraq?”

“Exactly. But these days there are also many people who don’t concern themselves with politics—they are just concerned with making money. Young people want to study business or science to get a good job and live comfortably. No one studies the humanities any more.”

“But the humanities are very important. They give us a reason for living.” I tell Shinji about my work, about my efforts to try to instill an appreciation for the humanities in medicine and influence the development of humane medical practice.

“Yes,” Shinji says, his eyes becoming distant. “When my grandfather lay in bed in the hospital dying in coma, we called for the doctor. It was the middle of the night. The nurse told us that the doctor said he would be up later. ‘People don’t die that quick,’ the doctor said. He arrived three minutes before my grandfather died, dressed in a T-shirt and blue jeans. It was the end of his shift, and he wanted to go home.”

“I’m terribly sorry,” I say, apologizing for a member of my profession that I don’t even know.

We are silent, then Shinji says. “Do you know Michael Moore’s ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’? That film has served to open the discussion about American foreign policy in Japan. At least people are talking about it.”

“Are they free to talk openly?”

“Yes. I would say for the most part, yes.”

Shinji asks me about my interest in Thoreau. “I read him in high school in the 1960s. Back then many young people were interested in looking at alternatives to the pursuit of wealth.”

“I know—the counter-culture: the Beat generation; Jack Kerouac; Woodstock; Neil Young; ‘Four Dead in Ohio,’ and John Lennon’s ‘Imagine.’”

Shinji’s string of free associations sets my mind reeling. Memories of that era flood my brain. “You know all about that?”

“Yes. Many people in my country are very interested in that time.”

“So much different from now, when fear seems to be the operative word instead of hope.”

“Hope; yes, I like that word,” Shinji says, smiling.

Our conversation took place last July in Concord, Massachusetts. As I write these words, I imagine that Shinji is celebrating the American president-elect with his countrymen in Japan today.

“Notes from a Healer” — There Are No Ordinary Moments

For those of us engaged in medical practice, even in our daily mundane routine there are no ordinary moments.

The latest installment of Notes from a HealerThere Are No Ordinary Moments — is now online, newly published in the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine.

The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine is an online clearinghouse for manuscripts dealing with the humanities and medicine.

Brokenness and Healing

Recently I returned from a medical conference at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. The title of the conference was “In Osler’s Footsteps.” I had been invited to give an oral presentation entitled “Brokenness and Healing.” For me it was quite an honor to be asked to give a talk in the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, a mere stone’s throw from the resting place of the great physician’s ashes.

During my weekend in Montreal I stayed at a bed and breakfast run by a woman in her mid 50s named Michelle. The morning of my departure, I took a photograph of Michelle seated on the sofa in her parlor. On the wall behind the sofa where she sits there hangs a large abstract painting. Michelle was the artist. Several of her other paintings hang on the walls of her home; some abstract, some more traditional. Michelle studied art history as an undergraduate, and later completed a Master’s equivalency in Fine Arts.

The painting that hangs on the wall above the sofa in her parlor was one of the last paintings Michelle did. That was back in 1985. Michelle no longer paints, because she is blind.

Michelle suffers from a medical condition known as retinitis pigmentosa. This condition is transmitted genetically. If you happen to be the unlucky recipient of this gene, you too will go blind one day. Michelle told me that seventeen members of her extended family have been affected by retinitis pigmentosa. Although never formally diagnosed, her own father was blind when he died. Michelle has two children of her own, a son and a daughter. The son has retinitis pigmentosa. So far her daughter and two grandchildren show no signs of the disease.

When I told Michelle that I had come to Montreal to deliver a presentation on brokenness and healing, she stopped rocking in the chair and sat forward, seemingly intrigued by my words. We are all broken in some way, I told Michelle; yet we do have the capacity within ourselves to experience substantial healing.

Slowly, Michelle nodded her head. “En français on dit la résilience,” she said.

“Oui,” I replied, “la résilience. C’est la même chose.” Resilience—it’s the same in any language.

At one time or another we are all broken individuals, and those of us who are healers become wounded healers. We may not realize this fully at first, yet we can find strength in our woundedness to minister to those suffering individuals who cross our paths every day.