What seemed like a typical day in ER, turned into a life changing moment.
I was working my way through the list of patients, ticking them off, one by one, in order of emergency. In the Emergency Department we have ‘screen, treat and dispo’—we determine what a patient needs, stabilize and treat them, determining whether or not they are sick enough to be admitted to the hospital. We try to get through as many people as possible because the next patient in the waiting room could be the sickest one there, and might need more immediate attention.
When I saw that my next patient’s complaint was ‘anxiety’, I felt myself disregard him before I even arrived in the room. Already resigned before seeing him, I thought, “What can I do for him here in the ER? I hope he’s not another drug-seeker,” It wasn’t that I’d lost compassion for patients with anxiety and drug addiction. It was just that I saw so many of them in the course of a day that it was hard not to be dismissive at times.
Michael was sitting on the edge of the bed. He was a young man of 35, well-dressed in a crisp shirt and neatly ironed slacks. He tried to give me a friendly smile, but it was through a pained expression.
He told me that he was a nurse in the hospital, but was unable to work or support his family because his anxiety was so bad. He knew from his training that there was probably nothing I could do for him, but he was just so desperate. He didn’t know where else to turn.
I saw it right there: the pain in his eyes. Something about his desperation touched me so deeply it jolted me out of my Emergency Medicine mode, and instead, I saw a fellow human being, suffering. The compassion of truly witnessing someone else’s pain that was suppressed for so many years in order to survive as a western physician poured out of me. In that moment, I realized it was more important to bear full witness to this man’s pain than to come up with any kind of solution. I sat and spoke with him about his life, his kids, and how his marriage was starting to break down due to his anxiety for half an hour (a huge amount of time to spend with someone who is not emergently sick in the ED) without the need to ‘fix’ anything.
When I went home that night I felt shell-shocked. The whole way that I had been taught to practice medicine did not fit that experience. We are taught that it is necessary to wall off the suffering of others in order to practice. Yet my deep, innate sense—everything I was feeling—was telling me the opposite. I began to question all of the traditional teachings that seemed to be standing in the way of being the whole healer I had set out to be. I realized that so much of what I truly considered healing came less from following formulas and protocols, and more from being in touch with the human connection that deeply embraces both joy and suffering. I understood for the first time that unless we can fully feel with someone, we cannot be authentically compassionate. On that cold November night I had what can only be described as ‘an awakening of the soul’, realizing we cannot fully be loving and present with another human being
It was a profound experience that touched not only my career, but every waking moment of my life, every relationship, and every interaction I had from then on. I went from mechanically and efficiently practicing medicine (and life), to being deeply present with everything and everyone I connected with, myself included. It was the beginning of a spiritual awakening, knocking down the outer walls to reveal what was underneath.
The next moment of awakening came when I was washing someone’s feet.
Following my first realizations, I made the decision to take two months out of my schedule and go to the mountains of Nepal to practice medicine with those who do not have access to Western medicine. Outside of making an authentic contribution, I also wanted to get a new perspective on medicine, aside from my formal Western training. On my first trip, I set off up the mountain with nine other doctors, not knowing what to expect. But it was actually in the simplest moment that I had my most profound experience.
I was kneeling in a puddle of muddy water with the blue tent door flap fluttering in the mountain breeze. An elder village woman’s feet were in my bare hands.
I dipped her dry and calloused feet into a basin of warm, soapy water, picked up a nail brush with my right hand to start scrubbing at the dirt in preparation for her acupuncture session. Her feet jerked back as I started with my brush. I was startled out of my concentration, forgetting for a second that those feet belonged to someone. I looked up at her, sitting on a wooden school bench in the middle of the freshly harvested barley field that was serving as our medical camp. Her wizened face was smiling shyly, framed by bright mountain sun, and the vast Himalayas behind her.
We looked at each other, both seeing the absurdity and joy in that moment, and although we didn’t speak the same language, we had a moment of connection that led to us both laughing hysterically. It was quite some time before we could stop.
The examples above were just two of the many experiences I had in my awakening as a whole healer and medical practitioner.
What these, and similar stories, represent to me is the joy of connection filling my heart. I went from being an ER doctor, efficiently and mechanically carrying out medicine, to bringing my humanity into my practice. I came to believe that in order to work authentically, we have to acknowledge the full spectrum of human emotion. We need to be able to feel the suffering of another human being in order to fully share their joy.
These understandings led to the question, “How do we unlearn the walls we have built, particularly the ones that were built during medical education based on the erroneous belief that connection and emotions are the enemies of professionalism?” It’s a question that I continue to ask in my own practice, and one I ask on a daily basis with the many doctors and medical professionals that I work with privately too. There are similar questions, such as:
These are not just questions that make our patient’s experience more pleasurable. They are questions at the core of life’s purpose.. Because what I have come to realize is that living and operating from a mechanical place where we go through the motions with our patients, that’s what breaks us down in the end. In order to be fully present, alive and engaged in what we do, we need to have that human element of acknowledging both suffering and joy simultaneously.