Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

At 3pm each day on the Hematology/ Oncology Service we attempt to rip ourselves from our wards work to take in a teaching session. It was during one of these sessions that our presenter made this provocative statement: “Pain is not the same as suffering. We can take away a patient’s pain but she may continue to suffer. We may not be able to take away a patient’s pain, but she may yet find a way not to suffer” 

This statement stopped me in my tracks. Each morning we evaluate our patient’s pain, especially important on the cancer service. There is usually a number involved between 1 and 10, giving us a nice clear target to shoot for. When we get that number down to zero, we feel good that the patient is not in pain. And yes, that is a worthy target. But how do you quantify suffering? The presenter offered this definition of suffering “To not feel whole.” 

Patients suffer by being reduced to an illness; they feel less than whole. I once had trouble getting through to patient until I walked into his room without an agenda. We just talked, person to person, not doctor to patient. A doctor can inadvertently cause suffering, the very thing our oath compels us to avoid. At the end of the classic Greek play, Oedipus, the title character is in a great deal of pain, having just gouged his eyes out after realizing he had, despite his best efforts, fulfilled the prophecy of killing his father and marrying his mother. It is a horrific realization and yet he is finally complete in the knowledge of this truth. He is in pain, but he is emerging from suffering. 

The challenge is how we ease not just pain but suffering in others. Or put another way, how do we contribute to another’s sense of wholeness? 

Theatre_Masks

Credit: Prince George Speech Arts and Drama


The email started with “Congratulations” and then five minutes later I received a text that began with “Sorry to let you know that” The first was an educational/career opportunity, the second was a loss in the family. I felt alternating excitement and sadness and was reminded of an acting exercise I used to do with my students in which for ten seconds they had to pretend that their partner was their long lost twin, and then that their partner was an immediate physical threat. The point of the exercise was to demonstrate that Theatre is about the extreme moments in life. Intense good or intense bad. There is not, to my knowledge, a play that has succeeded on the premise of brushing one’s teeth or sorting laundry. The moments we remember most in life also fall into one of those two categories. The Great. The Awful. And yet, what do we do when these happen so close to each other? To offer a medical example, how do I break the news to a patient that mom made it but baby didn’t, or the other way around. We talk a lot in medicine about breaking bad news, but what about breaking mixed news?

I think the answer may be found, in part,  back in the acting exercise. The exercise worked best when there was no hangover from the previous situation. When the actors inhabited the physical threat fully or the wonderful possibility of meeting a long lost twin fully. It worked, even if the switch was sudden. When faced with mixed news, I think we’re tempted to gloss over the part that makes us uncomfortable. We rush over the good news because we don’t want to seem insensitive or feel guilt about seemingly not empathizing with  the closely accompanying bad. Or we gloss over the bad because it’s hard and then strike a false cheeriness based on the good. The result is this emotional no man’s land in which we are not present because we are more concerned with what we ought to be feeling than what we are actually feeling. One of my favorite scriptures is “mourn with those who mourn” and “rejoice with those who rejoice”. There is no caveat for inconvenient timeframes or close proximity between events. All anyone expects or really needs whether it is a patient, friend, or a family member, is that you honor that particular moment, joy or pain, fully. Have you noticed how sweet the first laugh is after you have just talked about a tragic experience? We are most alive in those moments allowing for truer connection. And so, I will celebrate the good news in the first email and mourn with my family members for the bad news in the text that closely followed. May I honor both moments . . . .

perfect-timing

Photo Credit: Steve-eilertsen.com

The line fell flat and I didn’t get why. Just the previous night, the same line with the same pace, inflection and volume got huge laughs from the audience but that night, nothing, except perhaps a polite chuckle. The only difference? I paused for an extra second to deliver the punchline and that killed it. The following night I used my original timing and the laughs were back. Could comedy be that clinical? Apparently so. And if timing proved to be important in my Acting, that only increased in medicine.

If a patient has a heart attack or a stroke, the two expressions you will hear are “Time is (heart) muscle” or “Time is brain.” The same intervention delivered too late and the effect is lost. I still remember pounding on the chest of a 32 year old heroin addict brought into the Emergency Room in cardiac arrest after an overdose. Every chest compression was filled with the knowledge that time was slipping away and when our team could not revive him, time stood still as the time of death was called. A young life gone too soon. Could a phonecall have prevented this overdose? Could a visit have come sooner and found him in better shape? We’ll never know.

Here’s what we do know. Timing is not simply about chance:

tim·ing
noun
noun: timing
  1. the choice, judgment, or control of when something should be done.

“Choice” “Judgment” and “Control” all imply deliberate action. Although we are not always in control of when certain things happen, we are in control of the timing of most things we do in our lives. But how conscious are we of that responsibility? Timing matters. Have you ever sent a text with either really good or bad news and had that one person who responds two days later saying all the right things, but somehow it doesn’t have the same effect? Timing.

I’m reading a provocative book right now “A Path Appears” which lays the case for how to make a meaningful difference. In the current chapter, the authors describe how tough the conditions are in a certain Native American reservation where up to two thirds of the male population are alcoholics. The unemployment and drop-out rates are unbelievable. So where do you time your intervention? The authors argue that trying to address unemployment before you’ve dealt with the fact that many children are born with fetal alcohol syndrome affecting their cognitive abilities is bad timing. Intervention can work but must be timed correctly.

As important as timing is, it is not adequately taught in school where the focus is on bodies of knowledge. But that knowledge is useless if not delivered in time to prevent a suicide or simply make a moment or day meaningful.

With timing in mind, I have taken a new approach to weekend activities with my boys. I used to schedule things I did with them where it made sense in the day, usually after taking care of my business earlier in the day. Reasonable right? But there was room for other things to interfere with the plan or I would get tired and I would not always get to things I wanted to do with them. Now, I start with them. Today we did big waffle breakfast, chores, an hour of reading together, countries of Africa pop-quiz and swimming back to back. This change in timing makes a difference in two ways: I am more likely to spend more time with them and that’s always a win, but I also convey implicitly that my time with them is so important that I start my day with it before anything else.

Timing makes a difference and it is a choice I am learning to be more deliberate about. And where it is not in my control, I have found peace in these words “He makes everything beautiful in its time.” Ecclesiastes 3:11