Her name on the patient schedule makes me cringe with dread and doubt. Her medical conditions are complex. She has every textbook complication of uncontrolled diabetes: legally blind, on dialysis, a finger amputation, a foot ulcer, heart disease, and blood pressure. What can I possibly offer this woman recently discharged from the ER with low back pain and leg numbness?
Wearing a name badge and stethoscope without a white coat, I take in a deep breath, exhale, and step into the exam room. Maybe I should have worn the white coat to help me look more official and less flustered.
Obsidian glints of merriment shine from her eyes as she stands to shake my hand. I’m surprised by the smile on her face despite the list of medical diagnoses and complications on her chart. Who is this woman? What does she want from me?
As we talk about her recent ER visit and she shares what has been happening with her physical health, I’m struck by her determined presence, her calm demeanor, a fighting spirit that refuses to be trapped in diseases, locked in misunderstanding by the medical profession.
She doesn’t want me to find the perfect medication or right therapy for her back pain and leg numbness. She’s asking to be seen, to be reflected as a valid human being experiencing change and loss as we all do. She’s asking me to acknowledge a resilient spirit that refuses to be limited by this medical story.
And suddenly she has my full attention and respect. Dread and doubt are now surrounded by compassionate connection, by awe. We explore possible resources for her care that weren’t apparent before, fears that she hasn’t expressed elsewhere, a lineage of strong ancestors guiding her.
At the end of our time together, we embrace in a shared wish for her wellbeing, for what is still possible despite the biological odds against her. I take this experience home with me and sit in meditation.
Settling into the body and breath with a steady rhythm, I receive oxygen from the trees outside and release carbon dioxide pressures from the day. Guided by Tonglen practice, I take in her suffering and send ease, breathe in her celebration of life and release it to all beings in need of inspiration.
May we listen to our patients’ stories with a willingness to be surprised. May we recognize that our healing journeys are not so different than their own.