The Meditating MD

About 7 years ago, I found that my life had hit the proverbial wall.  I was 35 years old, and it would appear, had every reason to be happy in life.  But the fact was, I was feeling empty and miserable.  I realized that my happiness had been constructed based upon the "American Dream," and that house of cards came crashing down in a hard way.  Some aspects of this I handled well, others definitely not.  But, what I learned through that painful experience was that true happiness was something altogether different than what I had led myself to believe in the first 3 1/2 decades of my life, and I was determined to figure it out...and soon!

I found a very compassionate and gifted therapist who has helped me a ton in general, but he is the one who originally turned me on to meditation as a way to understand myself in deeper ways, and to cultivate the conditions for authentic happiness.  I became eaten up with practicing, going to retreats, reading books, and listening to guided practices.  I had found not only a source of healing, but also a deep and pervasive passion.

As I began watching my life and my perspective change, I noticed profound shifts in my professional life as well.  I am an Orthopedic Surgeon by training, and as such, mainly see people for very targeted issues...or so I had initially thought.  What I was learning is that no condition, no matter how specific on paper, occurs in a vacuum.  The painful knee, for instance, is connected to a human being, an infinitely complex and wondrous concoction of physical, mental, and emotional processes that lives in community with others, and in the world at large.  Only by understanding this bigger picture of the people who sought my help could I really serve them well.  

This is not easy, mind you, as the health system continues to move increasingly to an assembly line model of care.  Health organizations are pushing to become more "efficient," and payment structures are set up to reward volume and illness-based diagnoses.  More on this in another post that is forthcoming (yes, a tease...keep reading).  I became very frustrated as I wanted to spend more time and get to know my patients better so I could really offer what I felt they really wanted and needed.  I wrote a book that I could offer to those who wanted more of the whole-person type of care I wanted to offer. But, I felt very much like I was living in two very separate and distinct worlds:  meditation and medicine.  Could the two ever be reconciled?  I was beginning to wonder.

The long and short of it is, I still work to combine these worlds, but have learned one really valuable lesson along the way.  I can't always give my patients the time that they or I want, but I can ALWAYS offer them presence.  I can always be attentive and hear what they are really telling me.  I can always allow my fellow human to be heard, respected, and attended to in a meaningful and compassionate way.  And, I can always strive to meet the other where she/he is, not where I want or expect her/him to be.  All of these, of course, have bled into the rest of my life and affect how I treat myself as well as all those I encounter.  While I certainly am not perfect at any of this, I see it as a practice, and hold myself to a high standard, while also being patient and forgiving to myself when I fall short.  It is all one big beautiful mess of a journey, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Either way, this has helped me reconnect to the reason I went into this profession in the first place.  

In sum, my gut sense is that if we can teach more physicians, nurses, allied providers, hospital administrators, insurance officials, etc to embrace a mindful, presence-based, human-centric approach to patient care, that we can actually create the environment for healing within our hospitals, offices, and the system-at-large that our patients want, need, and deserve.  This will require some major changes to the system, and an overhaul of the flow of dollars, but wouldn't it be worth it?  The real question is:  Why should we (and why do we) offer anything less?    

Thanks for listening.

That's all for now.

PB-