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Published August 14, 2013, 10:00 PM

Positively Beautiful: Healing the healers

Dr. Lissa Rankin was in our community last week as a speaker for the TEDxFargo event. She also facilitated a community brunch the next morning called “Healing Healthcare” that drew physicians, chiropractors, alternative practitioners, nurses and patients.

By: Dr. Susan Mathison, INFORUM

Dr. Lissa Rankin was in our community last week as a speaker for the TEDxFargo event. She also facilitated a community brunch the next morning called “Healing Healthcare” that drew physicians, chiropractors, alternative practitioners, nurses and patients.

She talked about taking charge of our health, “writing our own prescriptions” by adopting a healthy lifestyle, and harnessing the power of our minds to manage stress and set up our internal chemistry for optimism and vibrancy.

But it was evident that there was a deep current of angst amongst providers and patients present. All concur there could be a better way. The health care system, with its complex hierarchy, challenges in cost coverage and perceived focus on pharmaceutical management of all that ails us, is difficult even for those of us who practice under its umbrella.

Certainly modern medicine has extended our life-span in miraculous ways with the advent of antibiotics, vaccines, surgical techniques and devices. When you think about it, it parallels life in general: Modern advances make life easier in many ways, but these advances also accelerate the pace and complexity of our lives. In medicine and in our busy lives, what suffers is communication and compassion.

Much of the discussion focused on trauma and stress. Rankin discussed the trauma that medical training induces, and said she feels many doctors are left permanently wounded. As an OB-GYN resident, she was forced to work when very ill and was told she was weak when she was emotionally affected delivering a still-born baby.

A retired pediatrician told of instruments thrown in the operating room. Another physician spoke of her life in practice with brain-injured patients and another spoke of delicate care-giving in the last stages of a cancer patient’s life.

I have been part of 26-hour surgeries to repair the facial bones of a woman after a car accident, and other cases of similar length for patients with aggressive cancers.

We’ve seen terrible accidents, awful tumors, and violence. We’ve seen chronic disease sap the life out of delightful people. All of us have stories of sleepless nights, bad coffee and poor diets. Women physicians sometimes give up their peak fertility years. Self-care was not part of our training.

We are supposed to suck it up, get back out there, never let them see you sweat, be professional and caring and always on time.

A physician brought up a good point during the brunch discussion. How do we process the stress, so that we can respond better in the future? Can we train to be the brave soldier, firefighter, first responder, pilot Capt. Chelsey Sullenburg, the unruffled trauma surgeon? Not all of us are called to be in these situations, but perhaps there is a better way to process the trauma and suffering that we all encounter in our training, in our offices and on the front lines.

Dr. Edwin Leap thinks that we’ve been misled. In his recent article for Emergency Medicine News, he writes, “The things we face, the things we endure, the misery that so often visits … get inside us. The stories are parasites; they never go away, and they have the good sense not to kill us. Perhaps they benefit us; they remind us not to make the same mistakes twice … Or maybe they are just pain. Maybe they are diseases themselves or the wounds we have to suffer in the war against death and disease and misery.”

And so I come back to communication and compassion. We can modify our lifestyle to minimize unneeded stress, but some is unavoidable. Most other professions, including the military, give the opportunity for processing difficult situations.

Dr. Leap suggests stress-relief discussions and short sabbaticals for recuperation. I think that just acknowledging and discussing the experiences goes a long way.

Dr. Rankin writes, “We are all doing the best we can as limited, imperfect human beings with egos and agendas and physical limitations and exhaustion and biases. … If we can find a way to feel compassion for each other as healers and patients, we can … help each other heal.”

Dr. Susan Mathison founded Catalyst Medical Center in Fargo and created PositivelyBeautiful.com. Email her at shesays@forumcomm.com.

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