Posts Tagged ‘Pain’

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? 

Photo Credit: HealingwithDrCraig
The look was the same . . . trembling lips, searching eyes, streaming tears, furrowed brows. The only difference between the grieved face of the father of slain officer, Patrick Zamarippa, and Alton Sterling’s son was the hue of their skin. The pain was identical. This was a harrowing week in America and I won’t cheapen the moment by offering political viewpoints on how we find ourselves here. I have appreciated the calls by both black and white people to love not hate, but I think we all know that Facebook statuses alone are not going to change the situation. In medicine, when patients present with medical conditions that are years in the making, a diseased lung following years of smoking, we understand that no medication no matter how powerful will simply erase the problem. The most effective solution is twenty years past its time. So, I humbly submit that the most potent forces for change were the babies born on each of the days that these men died and left holes in their families. Death can only be overcome by life. These babies do not yet know hate; we can teach them something different. We can dare to move past the natural discomfort we all feel with unfamiliarity and connect. 

And what about the rest of us? Can we change? Absolutely. But it will take something radical, beyond ourselves. When our heart has a major physical problem, we recognize that we need expert help in the form of a cardiologist or cardiothoracic surgeon. Why then would we think that spiritual heart defects are do-it-yourself projects? I realize that not all who read this may agree with my spiritual framework, but I have realized that real change in my heart requires God, who called himself “the great physician.” There is a wonderful verse in the Bible in which the Word of God is referred to as able to “pierce to the division of soul and spirit, joints and marrow.” Sounds like a surgical instrument to me. In fact, one translation describes the Word as a “surgeon’s scalpel.” I recognize that I am a surgical candidate, requiring both the operation that can transform my heart as well as the supportive care of people of goodwill thereafter. Change is possible.

I want to leave you with an image that came to me as I was praying this morning for the families of those lost. I imagined light challenging the darkness of violent acts, a light we can call carry. But I remembered that even those carrying light may still be carrying pain. So perhaps there are tears streaming down the face of light. But the light shines through those tears and, as physics teaches us, a rainbow is created. Not only is darkness dismissed, but color as beauty, not as color as divider, is introduced. This is our opportunity . . .