Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Thoughts on compassionate health care

Recently, I heard a fantastic story on the radio about how one of the leading medical schools in the country is allowing a growing percentage of humanities majors into medical school. My first reaction was one of gratitude that a training facility for medical and health care professionals sees the potential of well rounded human beings being even better health care practitioners. My second reaction was self-reflection.

I didn't go to medical school. I always wanted to be a psychologist. For 17 years now, I've been living out my dream of doing just that, but in the setting of cancer care. I've probably seen many thousands of people, treated hundreds of family members for grief. I didn't set out to do this.

And I learned very little of how to do it in my formal graduate education.

As an undergraduate, I had the incredible luck of attending one of the most eccentric colleges in the country, the University of California at Santa Cruz. Set high above the Pacific Ocean on the edge of a redwood forest, it was an idyllic locale for inner and outer exploration. I planned on being a psychology major. Unfortunately, it seemed at least half the student body had the same idea. The pre-requisite classes were just too crowded. I couldn't get in. It seemed that if I wanted to do the psychology major route, it would probably require an extra year.

Back then, I was allowed to do an independent major. So I put together my own curriculum and syllabus and major requirements over the course of an angst filled weekend during my sophomore year. I recruited three of some of my favorite faculty members to serve on the committee. The major-- I called it Psychology of Self-- was a mix of explorations into transcultural identity, mysticism and hermeneutics. Most of my classes were one-on-one, a professor, assigned study text and me meeting weekly. One particular highlight was a meticulous study of Exodus 3:1 using Martin Buber's I and Thou as a sort of decoder ring.

Every week for 9 weeks, my professor and I studied the scriptural text word by word using the transcending flow of I and Thou to understand the interaction and interplay of human and divine. We travelled through a spiritual landscape populated by personal experience and individualized quest for meaning. Weeks were spent contemplating "Moses, take off thy sandals from thy feet, for the ground upon which you stand is holy ground." Where did the voice come from? Was it referring to only that spot on the mountain? What is holy? What is holy ground?

I can't convey all that went on in those conversations. The point of it was that each of us has to answer those questions for ourselves.

As I sit with a patient who is newly diagnosed with a curable disease, or told they only have a short time to live, or with a family member whose only companion now is the absence of a loved one, I realize so much of what I do is still in that tiny room, sipping mint tea with a scholar of the Hebrew holy books, contemplating the mysteries of the spiritual and the mundane.

Neither of us knew in those conversations that it would lead to comfort for the sick and dying in a most literal sense 25 years later. None of this was done with foresight. Yet without the freedom to let my mind and spirit wander in that misty forest campus, I don't think I could do much of what I do today half as well as I hope I am doing.

I realize that in order to provide compassionate care to those who need a companion to be present as the mysteries of suffering, illness, pain and death unfold, the companion needs to travel some of this territory on their own. This isn't taught in graduate training programs nor in medical schools. It's the realm of the humanities. Supposedly unpopular and unlucrative majors like English literature, philosophy, religious studies may offer keys to unlocking our health care system. They offer the path forward towards breathing humanity into the health care system, of restoring medical care into a healing art and allowing healers to have genuine, intimate contact with patients.

And a way for healers to heal themselves from the burdens of care delivery.

Clearly, there is no substitute for competent, evidence-based care. But there is also no substitute for a curious, compassionate person providing that care who has spent as much of  their lives living as well as studying.