Thursday, April 17, 2014

Education and Listening

Sitting in on classes at the University of Washington School of Medicine is a privilege which I could not have imagined 8 years ago - but then, 8 years ago, I would not have been interested in doing so.

After spending intense months with my family in a hospital setting, a piece of my heart has remained there, with the staff who so lovingly tended to Katie and to each one of us. I cannot forget them, nor what families like ours ask of them, day in and day out. They suffer when we suffer; though they have more experience and training, they are human, as we are.

I know that Katie's life and death impacted those who provided her with care.

Because I had over five years of training and experience in pastoral caregiving prior to the onset of Katie's illness, it is natural for me to think deeply about these dear caregivers and their feelings. As my own pain has become less like an elephant sitting on my chest - and more like a stone in my shoe - this concern for medical caregivers has grown. As the national discussion about the state of health care heats up, my concern centers upon a desire to improve conditions for both staff and patients - and questions about the best, most appropriate, effective ways to do that.

In considering those questions, I have been fortunate to meet staff of the U of W School of Medicine who are engaged in teaching, who are willing to share openly and generously, and to include me. Last week, I attended another session of "The Healer's Art" - this one about grief, loss and disappointment. The featured presenter is an experienced doctor who spoke eloquently on the topic, and guided us through personal reflection and sharing afterward. I found it illuminating.

I also had the privilege of participating in a "Values Clarification" exercise with 4th-year medical students. That was deep, interior work. We were invited to privately list 4 things in 5 categories that mean the most to us - categories such as relationships, possessions and so on. Then we were guided through an experience of facing our own critical illness and the loss of most of those 20 things. Eventually, we were faced with our imminent death. The scenario ran parallel to what Katie endured, and it dug deeply into my consciousness.

Though I have already personally encountered many of the issues that were raised, at one point the experience was so intense that I had to mentally withdraw. I came out of the guided imagery and studied my hands, centering myself back in the present moment. That is the hardest part about my desire to contribute in this field: not knowing when emotions may overwhelm me. Because of that uncertainty, I frequently wonder whether I am the best person for the job; yet I know that my experience has value to teach.

I am drawn to these physicians-in-training, and to their mentors and colleagues. I would love to minister to them in compassion - care of the soul - particularly as evidence of burnout and stress, disillusionment, unrealistic demands and the conflicts of cost vs. best-quality care become more and more prevalent in the field. Discerning whether this calling is real, is mine, and if so, how it is to be answered - how to do the work without injury to myself? - is the business of the moment.
I sit with students and staff, listening for answers, and offering the gifts of my heart.


Robin Gaphni said...

The way is opening for you as you pursue your dream of working with caregivers. They are so lucky to have your wisdom and your heart-filled experiences. Little did you know six years ago that this would be your path. I have no doubt that Katie is so very proud of you. x,o

Karen said...

That is a beautiful reflection. I can well understand how you had to pull back and center yourself on the moment. It is hard to go back into that pain. You are so brave and all you are doing is preparing you with many gifts to give.

Elizabeth said...

I so admire you, Karen -- particularly your openness and compassion and tolerance. I know that there is specific teaching in mindfulness that pertains to caregivers and wonder if you might look that up (if you haven't already). The people at Insight LA often teach workshops for caregivers, stressing the importance of this self-care. I also recently read somewhere that never has the medical field reported so many physicians dissatisfied with their work. In fact, they have a very high rate of suicide. I wonder what all of this is about and have to think it's partly due to the things that you've outline here.

Ann said...

I love that you are working with physicians in training. It's something that is near and dear to my heart. I started a program called "Touchstones of Compassionate Care" that is a physician education program. So far, the program has been implemented at Johns Hopkins Children's Center and Children's Hospital of Orange County and it's message has been shared with several other hospitals and medical schools. We've also presented at the Southern California Patient and Family Centered Care Conference a few years ago. As the parents of children who have spent a lot of time in the hospital, we definitely have a unique perspective and our voices need to be heard - in a kind and respectful way. What a great opportunity Karen.

You can read more about TouchStones of Compassionate Care here:

Happy Easter!

Busy Bee Suz said...

You are so inspiring Karen. Getting out there and learning, doing, helping…all with raw emotion just below the surface. YOU have a gift of caring and you are using it wonderfully.