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The Sorrow and Joy of Medicine

Sometimes I have a hard time explaining how patients heal me. How being present is a gift not only for them but for me as well. There is one very special person who I’ve worked with for the last 10 years. I will call her DB. I met her first when her sister-in-law was dying of cancer. It was at a Blessing way given by all the women in her life two days before she died. I was honored to be included.

Two years ago, DB was diagnosed with breast cancer. I got the mammogram results as I was leaving on vacation and as soon as I got to my destination I knew that I had to call her before I could truly vacate. No one else could do this. It had to be me. Those are the worst calls to make. I never know how to say it, wishing I could sugar coat it, but I never can. It sucked. She went on to treatment and recovery.

About 18 months ago, she came in again, absolutely falling apart. She was driving home when she got a call from an unknown number. She decided to ignore it. When she arrived at home, a neighbor told her that the police had just been at her house and gave her a card to call. It was the same number. Immediately, they told her they would be there and with the police came a Chaplain. Her husband, who was riding a motorcycle, was just hit and killed by a truck hauling a boat about 5 miles from their house. She went numb.

I was undergoing my own personal trials, trying to figure out what exactly love, dependence and loss meant. Trying to sort out the real from the imagined. You know, that existential shit we humans tend to put ourselves through. And I walked into the room, and needed to be still and listen. Because there was nothing more I can do other than that. I held her hand, I held her, and cried.

We worked together on this for the last 18 months. Her pain and sorrow taught me about gratitude and the need to let go of control, for it is an illusion. We have no ability to predict our future. At any second, our life can change in a direction that is terrifying or wonderful. And feelings are only that, feelings. They are neither permanent or always meaningful. They can be wrong. Putting too much weight on them is dangerous. Those awful negative feelings are needed as much as the ecstatic positive ones for growth.

She came in today with news. She cleared her space, sold her house and is giving herself room to grow by taking up a cottage in Southern Oregon. A boy the age of 10 was in a car that her husband’s body hit. He saw the body, he felt the impact. Through his counselor, he sent her a letter. He told her that when he saw what happened he had said a prayer for him hoping he left his body quickly and without pain and went to heaven. He asked her if he thought that Mr.B went to heaven. He couldn’t sleep until he knew. She replied that for a long time she wasn’t sure. That she too asked those questions and wondered those thoughts, but recently she had felt her husband’s presence and it was one of peace and calm. He then must be in heaven. She told this boy that Mr.B loved to be outdoors. He was happiest when he was hiking, fishing, riding his motorcycle and that he would have wanted this child is to go outside and experience nature. A few months went by when she heard that this boy had graduated from counseling and return to his life as a child.

She decided it was time to let go and move on and mailed one last letter, to the man who hit and killed her spouse. In the letter, she said that she knew that he too must be in pain, struggling to move forward. That moments like that are defining and futile to try and change. She forgave him and asked him to continue living his life.

This too shall pass.

Compassion and forgiveness goes a long way towards healing. Letting go of trying to make everything perfect and pretending that life never hurts. And growing from it. Those are the lessons that are taught to me every day in one form or another. This is why I am a doctor. Not to prescribe medications to reduce your blood pressure or get rid of your cold, I do that too, but to remind you that life goes on. In deep pain and transition, there is a potential for growth. And growth hurts sometimes. And when there is sorrow, there is also joy.

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