David Henderson: David O. Hough, MD Endowed Memorial Award Essay

by David Henderson, Spirit Of The Healer

I think “the spirit of the healer” is a terribly difficult idea to conceptualize. I don’t think it will be done justice if you try to dissect out the qualities of a healer. Qualities like compassion, empathy and praxis are merely characteristics of what a healer possesses. They do not define what a healer “is” or even what a healer represents to their patients. There is also no magic recipe for a skillful and compassionate healer. You cannot combine a cup of empathy, a dollop of personal tragedy, a whisper of real-life experiences and top it off with medical knowledge. Yet, this doesn’t deter me from trying to unravel what I can do to develop these traits. Throughout medical school I have strived to become a caring and loving physician, whose commitment to medical knowledge and his patients is unquestionable.

Despite the best attempts by medical colleges to include compassion and understanding for patients within their curriculum, these ideas are difficult to make incarnate. Two quotes come to mind when I think about the compassionate healer. Plato said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” In similar sage insight, Mother Teresa called to “Let us touch the dying, the poor, the lonely and the unwanted according to the graces we have received and let us not be ashamed or slow to do the humble work.” I have used a combination of these two sentiments to mold my own compassion. I also do not think it is trite to suppose that personal tragedy nurtures compassion. My father passed away early in my first year of medical school. I have been shaped by the positive and negative experiences interacting with clinicians during that very difficult time in my family’s life. I have tapped into that experience many times, especially when a patient seems overwhelmed by this immense juggernaut of the medical care system. Just last week, I took time to explain to a very distraught woman how she developed diabetes, what was happening to her body, and what our goals were going to be together. After the conversation she thanked me for taking the time to finally explain her disease to her in a way she could understand to calm fears of the unknown and fears of being lost in the paper shuffle of referrals.

I think that the spirit of the healer can be distilled down to love. A healer loves what they do, where they work and whom they serve, the patient. I read early in my medical school career that a physician should keep reserved distance from their patients. This is a concept that I have grown to loath. If I am not able to love my patients, then I will never become the physician and healer that I work toward becoming every day. In the two years I have worked in the wards and clinics as a student physician and my 7 years as a paramedic, what I feel my patients gained most was my love. I have experienced the immense privilege of holding the hand of a dying patient when medicines have failed them. I am grateful for the opportunity to have listened to the life story of a lady during a long ambulance ride home to die in the wonderful care of hospice. She began talking about celebrating the end of World War II in downtown Grand Rapids. I asked the driver to exit the expressway and pull over to where Campau Square used to be, and I flung open the back doors of the rig so, in some small way, she could relive that magical memory one more time. A robot can perform a surgery and my computer can access the breadth of medical knowledge with a few clicks of the mouse. A great physician shouldn’t be judged by these benchmarks. Every physician should be competent in their craft. What makes a great physician and a great healer is this intangible.

Spirit, from spiritus in Latin, can mean “to breathe” and also refers to the soul, courage or vigor. I think all those senses should be appreciated in the physician. What I should have been expressing all along is that the “spirit of the healer” is an active process. This phrase is not a concept, but rather it is energy. Healers inspire. Healers encourage. Healers love. A healer does not fix the malady that plagues the patient. The patient’s body heals itself. The healer nurtures the body’s ability to heal from within. The healer may do this by a combination of physical and metaphysical efforts and actions. The physician can close a wound with sutures but should also strive to inspire and promote the wellness that should dwell within all. I am excited to embark on the next phase of my life as a family physician, and to hopefully continue to grow in the capacity to love and care for my patients in the true spirit of the healer.