There is this general ethos in contemporary healthcare that physicians should remain neutral, impartial, objective, and detached. To some extent, this seems fitting so to prevent burnout and enable doctors to see so many patients with a plethora of dramatic conditions and circumstances.
However, sometimes this goes too far and is detrimental and dehumanizing not only for patients but even for the doctors themselves.
One thing a former patient shared with me in this regard struck me. She said it was greatly reassuring for her when her doctors would preface their medical judgment or recommendation with the words, “If you were my spouse…” or “If you were my daughter…”
This indicated to her that the doctor truly had her best interest at heart. If he was willing to advise something in the case of his own loved one, then it was clear that he was making his recommendation very sincerely and had considered it seriously.
And so, this leads me to reflect on how we really want to be treated by others not only as they want to be treated but also as they would want their own loved ones to be treated.
I think doctors extending this kind of empathetic imagination to their patients can be an excellent form of accompaniment and help in having crucial conversations in the meeting between doctor and patient.
Today I was reading through Henri Nouwen’s correspondence and came across some interesting reflections of his in a letter he wrote to a friend whose father had just passed away.
In a 1987 letter addressed to Jurjen Beumer, Henri Nouwen wrote:
Many thanks for your very kind letter. I am very moved by what you write about the death of your father. I am so happy that you had a good and cordial farewell. I realize how important that is for you, especially since you told me a little about the tensions in your relationship with your father. Somehow I am convinced that this is a very important moment in your life, a moment in which you are facing your own mortality in a new way and where your father will become become a new companion in your own journey. I am deeply convinced that the death of those whom we love always is a death for us, that is to say, a death that calls us to deepen our own basic commitments and to develop a new freedom to proclaim what we most believe in.
Have you ever considered whether the death of a loved one has been a mini-death for you in the way Nouwen describes?
Is it true that the death of a loved one “calls us to deepen our own basic commitments and to develop a new freedom to proclaim what we most believe in”?
This evening my aunt, who is a primary nurse at the Rockyview General Hospital, shared with me a bit about her experiences as a nurse both before and amidst the pandemic.
In particular, she told me about a program initiated in 2015 called No One Dies Alone. This project of Alberta Health Services is a effort to ensure that any patient, who is without family or friends to visit them as they approach death, is met with some form of intentional companionship.
My aunt told me that, throughout the entire pandemic, she does not think anyone has died alone at her hospital. Most have had family and friends who were able to visit and for those who did not, they were accompanied by volunteers or clergy.
My aunt Danielle Hall (on the right) is a dual citizen who was born in Calgary and now lives and works as a hospice nurse in Chicago.
She traces her interest in working with the dying to when she was just five years old.
“I think how it started, when I reflect back, is that since my mother would often get headaches, she taught me how to rub her head to relieve them,” Danielle reminisced. “My mom would lay on the couch and I would stand behind her, rubbing her head with my fingers in circles around her forehead, and that’s when I first realized that I had a healing touch.”