Provided By Parents, For Parents.

Doctors Need Help, Too!

Posted on Dec 27, 2012

Pediatric illnesses affect everyone--even the doctors treating our children.

You might remember that in my last blog I promised to talk about listening, and how it helps the parents of children with cancer and blood disorders. Well, I’m going to keep that promise, but I’m going to talk about how listening can help doctors cope when they are confronted with critically ill and dying patients.

On Tuesday, November 27th, Jane Brody, personal health writer for the New York Times, wrote an article entitled “Aiding the Doctor Who Feels Cancer’s Toll.” Ms. Brody exposed something I have suspected for some time; doctors who treat incurably ill patients suffer with them. Brody states that “unable to cope with their own feelings of frustration, failure and helplessness, doctors may react with anger, abruptness and avoidance;” leaving their incurable patients feeling “neglected and depressed which can exacerbate illness and pain and even hasten death.”

In order to counter act this syndrome of detachment and frustration, Brody sites the Buddhist practice of “mindfulness mediation.” For those of you unfamiliar with this Buddhist practice, it all centers on breathing and “finding sources of renewal within work itself.” This makes total sense, since doctors are surrounded with the most stressful situations every day. Taking time out to clear their heads, to breathe, helps them to think more clearly and develop a clear perspective of what their patients are experiencing. “Patients, in turn, experience a doctor who’s not just focused on a medical agenda but who really listens to them.” By practicing mindfulness meditation, doctors become “more self-aware, empathetic and patient-focused.”

Let’s face it. We ask a lot of our doctors and expect them to cure us of every ailment know to man. But there are times when this is just not possible. Doctors are trained to save us; to cure us of every sickness. And when they don’t, they believe they have failed us. This is simply not reality! They are trained to keep trying to the bitter end, throwing treatment after treatment upon their suffering patient, all in the hopes of saving their lives. But as we all know, medicine and doctors have their limits.

When the end comes, and medicine falls away, many doctors retreat. They don’t have to. In fact, what most terminally patients want is their doctor to see them through to the end. To protect and comfort them, not cure them. So how can doctors do this? Here’s how. When a patient asks “promise me I’m not going to die” the mindful doctor responds “I can promise you I’ll do everything I can to help you. I’m going to continue to care for you and support you as best I can. I’ll be back to see you later today and again tomorrow.”

Dr. Diane E. Meyer, a renowned expert on palliative care at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, offers this approach, based on the Buddhist principal. “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Simply by the doctor standing there, supporting, they “restore the patient to the center of the enterprise.” What enterprise you ask? The enterprise of living and dying on our own terms, and having a doctor care for us when there is nothing else to do but stand. And listen.

Stathi Afendoulis

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