“Who am I when my body fails me?” This is a question we must face when injury or illness takes its toll on our lives. How do we respond to physical, mental, emotional stresses? How do we view God when we are weak or in pain? How do we cope with the losses we experience? A series of posts which deals with these questions was first published in 2016. It may be time for some of us to ask this question again – or for the first time. Individual posts in the series have been revised and will be re-posted on Tuesdays and Saurdays for several weeks. Suggestions for appropriate Scripture passages, prayer, quotes andd questions for reflection have been added.
“I think of each day as a gold coin that you are required to trade for something. You’ll never get that coin back, so whatever you trade it for had better be worth it. You also don’t know how many coins you have left to trade. . . .”
This statement by Dr. Raymond Barfield is from an interview with Janice Lynch Schuster in the magazine The Sun. Dr. Barfield is a pediatric oncologist and an outspoken critic of the way doctors are trained in medical school to focus on “the moving parts” (the treatment of organs and the body’s systems) but not on understanding patients and treating them with compassion. I was fascinated with Barfield’s comparison between what he learned as a medical student and how he now treats his young patients.
“Obviously we want doctors to understand biology. That’s a given. But we want more than that. We need more if a doctor is going to provide wise guidance regarding difficult decisions. When a patient is at a true fork in the road, biology alone will not help with which way to go. A doctor’s imagination needs to encompass more than the molecules going around in the body. We need to ask, Who is this person? What do they care about? What are they afraid of? What do they hope for? Do they have a goal that might make a difference in how I advise them at this crossroads? Too often doctors’ imaginations don’t reach far enough because of the way doctors are educated” (From an interview with Dr. Raymond Barfield in The Sun, January, 2016 issue).
I’m sending a copy of the interview in The Sun to my primary care doctor as a thank you. I know from experience that he operates from both his medical knowledge and his heart of compassion and love for his patients. And I am learning that my cancer doctor has the same philosophy. Yesterday I was interviewed by the social worker at his office. Among many other things, she asked me to share my understanding of my cancer and my treatment options. She asked me to share what I value in my life the most now that I have this diagnosis. She wondered what my biggest concern about the road ahead might be. She asked many questions about end of life treatment options. It was a blessing to have her facilitate this discussion in the presence and with the help of my son, who is also my health advocate. This office also is surely dedicated to the compassionate treatment of the whole person.
The metaphor about “trading coins” that begins this blog is inspired by Dr. Barfield’s belief that each person’s life is of value and each day counts. We all need to consider how each day is spent. While we can’t control the number that has been allotted, both doctor and patient must consider how to preserve the value of each “coin” and make wise choices about how we spend them.
Since none of us knows how many coins we have to spend, I encourage you to make sure that your medical professionals are interested in “who you are when your body fails you” and are willing to take your needs and wishes into the picture as they treat your “moving parts.” If your doctors don’t seem to have that philosophy, tell them that their understanding of you as a patient is important to you. If they don’t “get it” (or can’t take the time to do it because of the systems they are part of), try to replace them now, before you need them for serious decision-making because the number of gold coins left in your bag is limited.
Since I have learned that I have cancer, I am more and more eager to face the fact that I am trading in gold coins that will never be replaced – and more and more determined to turn them in for blessings that are worth the expense.
2020 Update: I just received a sympathy card from our family’s primary care doctor’s office. The doctor who is mentioned above, wrote this note: “Fred was such a unique patient, a true challenge and a friend. I know I’ll never meet another person like him. God placed us together for a reason and I believe we were both better for it.” I just wish I could share this note with Fred.
MULLING IT OVER: “I think of each day as a gold coin that you are required to trade for something.” When you wake up each morning, think about the day ahead. You will never get this day back. What are you going to trade for your coin for today? Complaints, angry words, frustration? Peace, patience? Fear? Serenity? Isolation? Friendship? Self-pity? Service? Sadness? Joy? It may help to keep a daily journal of the “trades” you have made.
SCRIPTURE: Psalm 33 (especially verses 18-22)
PRAYER: “Your creative work, Almighty God, fills me with awe: such power and magnificence! Your providence envelops me with hope: such care and attention! Thank you for being everything to me in Jesus Christ. Amen” (Eugene Peterson in Praying with the Psalms, March 8).
THOUGHT: “Remembering that we can live only one day at a time removes the burdens of the past from our backs and keeps us from dreading the future, which none of us can know anyway”(This is Al-Anon).