This is an essay I wrote over 10 years ago. I came across it in my files as I was looking for content to write this week. It seems to resonate now more than ever. This updated post is dedicated to the memory of a patient -Ms. CJ- I recently had the honor to take care of her in the last week before she passed through transition. May her memory be a blessing and may she rest in perfect Peace Profound.
Bringing connection and spirituality into the patient encounter can be therapeutic. Treating medical illness can become a daunting task after several years. And we all know that not all illnesses can be cured. But physicians are Type A driven personalities. We go into medical school to excel at what we do. We are in the world to make a difference.
We earnestly believe that if we try a little harder that we can save more lives.
Gradually, we come to the realization that no matter how smart or well put together our diagnosis or treatment plan is, we are going to lose some patients to death. I can tell you it’s not pleasant informing families of bad outcomes, and of impending death. Doing this over and over again becomes daunting. And with time we develop ‘coping skills’ to just get through the day.
One of those skills I learned during residency was to begin to refer to patients as ‘the case of’.
So during morning rounds, the start of the presentation would go something like this:
‘I’m presenting the case of Ms. Jenny a 75-year-old female who presents with diarrhea and vomiting…’
‘Ms. Jenny’ became just another case that I had to get through during my day.
There is no connection. I treated her for whatever ailment she presented, and then we parted ways.
As I have grown as a physician, especially with the coaching skills I acquired through training as a professional life coach, connecting with my patients and clients has become an integral part of who I am. I spend time learning something about their lives, what’s important to them. Research corroborates that when patients feel heard, they are more likely to adhere to medical treatment.
I have learned to reach out and be unafraid to feel the pain and uncertainty associated with the diagnosis of an incurable disease for instance. Or to cry at the transition of a patient.
And in accepting my humanity, I no longer look for ways to hide behind ‘it’s just a case or I’m ‘just doing my job’.
I’m not afraid to feel their pain, which can come with a deep connection. To remain open and vulnerable.
And I’ve found that patients and families appreciate that. I recently had a very touching experience with a patient that was such an example of the power of spiritual connection.
She was in her early 70s and had been diagnosed with metastatic cancer. She had just completed several rounds of chemotherapy, but unfortunately, cancer had spread and was causing fluid to fill up in her lungs.
She had was scared of the shortness of breath the fluid was causing. She had witnessed two relatives die a painful death from lung cancer.
Her oncologist not willing to come to terms with the fact that treatment had failed offered her and her family the option of further treatment. But I could see that her prognosis was not good. She was getting weaker, her breathing harder as the fluid accumulated in her lungs. Her son and she were conflicted as to whether to continue with treatment or to accept that she was terminal and transition into hospice. I was patient. I listened. I commiserated with this beautiful soul as she embraced her mortality.
I will always remember a very poignant statement she had made when she declared that she had lived a life with no regrets. As the family finally decided to transition her to hospice care, I made certain that she was comfortable. Not struggling to breathe.
We made arrangements to get her home. I hugged her and kissed her with tears in my eyes. The following day her son sent me a message to inform me that she had passed away that afternoon.
On occasions such as this when all has been done, developing a deep personal connection and leaning into our spirituality can serve as the best therapeutic touch.
Here are some areas to look at in your life
In what areas of your life do you feel least connected? In what areas of your life do you feel most connected?
If you were to be fully connected in every area of your life, what would that provide you?