Notes From the ER logo Did You Know



When Death Approaches

Within Each of Us Lies a Healer

Several weeks ago, I was playing soccer before my night shift. I was controlling the ball near midfield when an unmemorable series of events resulted in a twist of my left ankle and with a loud snap I had become a patient.

A few hours later, I changed my clothes, readying for my night shift. As I labored with my scrubs and white coat I felt a deep and unsettling anxiety. I wondered how my patients would react. Would they trust a doctor on crutches? My patients had never met me before; they wouldn't know that this really wasn't me.

What happened over the next few hours, days, and weeks has been a great lesson. What transpired was just the opposite of what I feared. Patients and their families seemed warmed by my injury. There was more trust instead of less. I was still their doctor, but my patients felt I could understand them better. They were all far more accepting of my injury than I.

Families and patients would welcome me to sit, often fussed about my leg and crutches, and frequently wished me well as our visit came to an end. I began to realize that despite being patients, their act of caring provided them powerful strength and comfort.

During my time on crutches, I often participated in interactions that had little to do with being a physician but everything to do with being human. My patients were more willing to tell their stories and share their wounds because they could see mine. An exchange of woundedness helped allow for an exchange of giving comfort.

Last week, a young man paced the floor while in the grip of extraordinary pain. His mother's stricken words met me as I entered the room, "He has a ruptured appendix." To her the diagnosis was obvious and the necessary tests and treatment were not being pursued quickly enough.

Pain medicine was administered and my patient felt enough relief to lay himself down on the stretcher. His mother, though, was tenacious with her demands. She found several different staff members to sharply voice her escalating concerns. It was even whispered that she was almost out of control.

I returned to the room and sat with her as her son fell asleep. I asked her why she was certain her son had ruptured his appendix. She replied that her appendix ruptured when she was younger. I asked her to tell me the story.

She was a girl in Korea and it was in during the early years of the Korean War. One day, she felt pain in her abdomen and walked the for several hours it took to get to the hospital. Appendicitis was diagnosed, but since because she had no money she could not have an operation. She recalls being told to go home and die.

She walked back home and begged her community for help. Someone gave her a gold ring and she set back out for the hospital. Halfway there, she didn't think she could make it anymore. Her appendix had ruptured.

Tears poured down her cheeks as she told me of her terror and pain. Somehow she walked the rest of the way and an operation saved her life. I took her hand as she finished her story. Her son's pain had exposed her old wounds. I had almost missed them.

I told her that her son was getting the best of care and he would never be treated as she had been. She calmed and thanked me. I could feel her settle into the comfort I had given her.

Becoming wounded is part of being human. These two stories tell of how our own wounds can uncover those of others and allow an opportunity for healing. Within each of us there is the capacity to extend the experience and wisdom of our own previous pains. In so doing, within each of us lies a healer.

< Back to Essays page


My Life As a Doctor
The Choices We Make