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Doctor versus healer

A couple of years ago, I was having lunch with Dr. Abraham Verghese, who spoke of how he was working at Stanford Medical School to teach med students the practice of healing the whole person. In the age of technological wonders, we are training doctors who see the body as a machine, and themselves as mechanics. Dr. Verghese writes about this problem regularly. Earlier this year, he wrote an essay for The New York Times in which he talked about how computerizing the practice of medicine has led to great breakthroughs, but also the loss of something essential. Excerpt:

I find that patients from almost any culture have deep expectations of a ritual when a doctor sees them, and they are quick to perceive when he or she gives those procedures short shrift by, say, placing the stethoscope on top of the gown instead of the skin, doing a cursory prod of the belly and wrapping up in 30 seconds. Rituals are about transformation, the crossing of a threshold, and in the case of the bedside exam, the transformation is the cementing of the doctor-patient relationship, a way of saying: “I will see you through this illness. I will be with you through thick and thin.” It is paramount that doctors not forget the importance of this ritual.

Another well-known physician-writer, Dr. Jerome Groopman, addressed the problem even more directly in a New York Review of Books article. Excerpt:

But only recently has medical care been recast in our society as if it took place in a factory, with doctors and nurses as shift workers, laboring on an assembly line of the ill. The new people in charge, many with degrees in management economics, believe that care should be configured as a commodity, its contents reduced to equations, all of its dimensions measured and priced, all patient choices formulated as retail purchases. The experience of illness is being stripped of its symbolism and meaning, emptied of feeling and conflict. The new era rightly embraces science but wrongly relinquishes the soul.

In his book Carrying the Heart, Dr. Frank González-Crussi, a professor of pathology at Northwestern University, has made a sharp departure from medicine as a cold world of clinical facts and figures. Rather, he asks us to return to a view of the body not as a machine but as a wondrous work of creation, where both the corporeal and the spiritual coexist.

Let me tell you about Dr. Tim Lindsey of St. Francisville. Tim was my sister Ruthie’s general practitioner. He’s younger than I am, and though we are both from St. Francisville, I first met him at the hospital in 2010, on the occasion of Ruthie’s cancer diagnosis. He told me at the time that he moved back to our hometown to practice medicine because it was here that he could practice medicine as he thought it should be done. He wants to treat all aspects of the person. Because he comes from here, his patients are not anonymous to him. They have stories. Because people are more than mere bodies, healing them, in Tim’s view, requires working within a relationship that is personal — one that recognizes, in fact, that both the corporeal and the spiritual coexist.

Tim and his wife Laura have been present for Ruthie and her family in an extraordinary way. I have not observed it personally, of course, because I don’t live here, but I’ve heard over and over from my folks, and from Ruthie, how they don’t know how they could get through any of it with Tim and Laura. It was Tim — who is very tall, and very gentle — who told Ruthie’s girls in the hospital that their mother had been diagnosed with cancer. (I don’t know how he managed this; I was in the hall, on the other side of the closed hospital door, and the screams of those children when they heard the news were shattering). And it was Tim who, at the hospital the other day, told the younger girls that their mother had died. Since then, Tim and Laura have both been out to Ruthie and Mike’s house several times, checking on folks, taking the girls places when they need to be away, things like that. Tim has taken some of us aside and advised us about what to watch for in Mike and the girls as the reality of life without Ruthie sets in, and how we can best help them heal. He was helping us, their family members, understand and accept our role in the restoration of Mike and the children after this grievous loss. And late yesterday evening, Tim and Laura sat on Ruthie’s front porch talking to Hannah, Ruthie’s daughter, about her own emotional pain, and what it means to face suffering and death as a Christian.

I’ve gotten so used to that from Tim that it only occurred to me this morning, drinking my coffee, what an amazing gift that man and his wife are to this community. Ruthie is dead. His service to her is over. But he doesn’t see it that way. There is still healing to be done in Ruthie’s family. Who does this anymore? Where are the family doctors who treat you like family? Where are the family doctors whose family treats you like family?

My mother recounted for me the events of the morning Ruthie died at home. Mom got a call from Mike, who had been doing CPR on Ruthie until the paramedics got there, and she rushed home from the store. She said she arrived and saw Mike sitting on his front steps, his head in his hands; Ruthie’s body had just been taken away by ambulance, Mom said.

“And then” — she started to sob — “and then that wonderful, wonderful Lindsey man came … .” She couldn’t finish her sentence. There were no words. But I knew what she wanted to say.

Not all doctors are healers. This one is. When you see what can be done by physicians who approach their vocation as a work of love, it can change the way you see the world, and your place in it.

I said to Julie this morning, “You know, I’m sorry we live so far away. I wish we had Tim taking care of our family.”

Julie said, “I was thinking the same thing.”

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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