In an article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine on Aug. 26, 1990—Doctor, Talk to Me—Anatole Broyard envisioned the ideal physician who would treat a patient’s body—and his soul:
”In learning to talk to his patients, the doctor may talk himself back into loving his work. He has little to lose and much to gain by letting the sick man into his heart. If he does, they can share, as few others can, the wonder, terror and exaltation of being on the edge of being, between the natural and the supernatural.”
Each one of us lives every moment of our lives on this edge of being, even though most of the time we pass our days totally unaware of it. In part we are too busy, too caught up in the mundane affairs of everyday living, to glimpse it. And I suspect that most of us would find living in a constant state of such awareness too intense to bear. Wonder, terror and exaltation can fill our lives with awe—or burn us out.
As clinicians we are called to minister to our patients in many ways. Sometimes we are called to talk, sometimes to listen. In Broyard’s words, we have much to gain by letting our sick patients into our hearts. The wise clinician learns that compassion helps to heal in ways that medication cannot—and that such healing can be reciprocal as well.
Anthony Martinez, a retired Navy eye surgeon, spends his days doing house calls on the homeless in Washington, D.C. Each morning he slings a bag of medical supplies over his shoulder and tramps off on foot to visit those who live under bridges or in the street. Martinez says that his work has given him a newfound purpose in life. “It helps me deal with my own demons,” he observes.
In her poem “What I Learned from My Mother,” Julia Kasdorf writes:
Like a doctor, I learned to create
From another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
You know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
Healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
The blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.