Thursday, August 23, 2012

My Pet Peeve

Everyone has something that just bothers them and causes their teeth to chatter and chills to go up their back: something that elicits the same sort of visceral reaction as fingernails on a chalkboard (although I know I date myself with that metaphor in this day of white boards and markers). For me, that pet peeve is when someone, especially someone in a caring profession, says, “There is nothing I can do.”

That simple statement signifies giving up, abandonment and an attitude that fails to recognize the infinite options and the infinite good that is possible when people who care keep trying. Some may see this as being unusual as I am the same person who wrote in a previous blog “Don’t just do something, stand there!” But when you stand with someone and you support a person through tough times, you are doing something and you are doing something extremely important.

A book I just read entitled “Nine Lives” written by Dan Baum also makes an aspect of “doing something” come to life. In this oral history of nine people’s lives in New Orleans before during and immediately after the Hurricane Katrina disaster, one of those people, Wil, relates the story of his father’s illness and time in the hospital. His father, Da, a larger than life figure who was Wil’s model for being a pillar of strength and dignity, was in the hospital with cancer and had massive bleeding from his rectum. Wil seeks out the doctors caring for his father and is told, “Your father is dying right now.” “We could put a shunt…but that wouldn’t change anything. We got men in here that can survive…We got to look after them first.” Wil goes back into the room and his father says, “They told you I was going to die.” His father, Da then goes on, “You go home to that new pretty wife of yours and get some sleep. I’m going to call you in the morning. We’re going to get them to give me that surgery.” Early in the morning while it was still dark, the phone rings and Wil lets it ring thinking that is the hospital saying that his father has died. He finally answers and hears, “I told you I was going to call you in the morning,” Da’s voice said. “You thought it was them people calling to say I was gone, didn’t you?” “They’re about to take me down to surgery.” Da was someone who knew how to be strong and fight for himself as an individual. Caring professionals can and should help people be strong and fight even if there is supposedly “nothing” that we can do.

Doctors, nurses and other health professionals are often faced with examples of problems that do not have any apparent solution. In those cases there is still something that can be done. Just giving someone their own voice, helping them find their strength, giving them options (and there are always options even if all of the options are not very good) and helping them marshal the resources they need to cope with their situation no matter the medical prognosis of that situation is “doing something”.

This type of problem is commonly seen with people who suffer from chronic pain. A recent article from the latest issue of the American Journal of Medicine illustrates this through a description of the lived experience of pain. Using the poetry of Emily Dickinson, which may seem unusual in a scientific peer reviewed medical journal, the author emphasizes the experience of living with pain. He states: “Chronic pain sufferers typically report experiences of isolation and alienation from their physicians and providers, from their caregivers, and even from their own bodies.” The author closes the article by stating “the healer can assist the pain sufferer in the reconstitution of his or her world, one in which pain is still present but does not entirely blank out the colors of the pain sufferers existence.” So it is for health professionals and those in caring roles in which “doing something” often means helping the person cope with a medical issue or other issues which have no concrete solution but have solutions to the alienation and isolation that accompanies them.

I hear the phrase, “There is nothing we can do” and hear an attitude of negativity and capitulation. The complacency and cavalier attitude that can easily overcome us is reflected in that simple statement. Those in need are all unique people and we are helping them when they do not know where else to turn. That is our job and our mission. We have to think of each individual and always find a way to do something to help them in their own journey no matter how difficult and “hopeless” it is. There is always hope when there is caring.