Thursday, October 14, 2010

The wounded healer

The wounded healer plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
--T.S. Eliot (from one of his “Four Quartets”)

In this snippet of poetry, T.S. Eliot illuminates a useful way of considering the physician-patient relationship. Writing of Christ, Eliot uses the metaphor of the physician in a way that I wish those providing my oncology care would consider.

All health-care professionals are wounded healers. Just like their patients, they cannot ultimately escape suffering. I discovered on Tuesday after Dr. V had completed his work on my arm and left the room that he has had several back surgeries. You can tell from the way he walks that he’s trying to avoid the pain of sciatica. He seems frail and much older than his years.

Moments of pain, loneliness, fatigue and sacrifice are intrinsic to all humans—even surgeons. My doctor’s own bleeding may yet become a source of human compassion. I pray that it does. It is oddly reassuring to learn that the man in whose hands I have placed my life himself knows physical pain. Because of his suffering, he may yet learn to dispense simple grace through his patient care.

And if he doesn’t, then he at least brings skill to his job. Competence is the first act of compassion. As a patient I want more; I want a glimpse of the transcendence of the healing arts. As a human, I accept the limitations of people who don’t know what to make of the suffering of others. My surgeon is but a man. If he lacks bleeding hands he nevertheless still bears the face of Christ.

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