Friday, January 19, 2007

Wake up!

Pema Chodron says, "Our life's work is to use what we have been given to wake up. ...It doesn't matter what you're given, whether it's physical deformity or enormous wealth or poverty, beauty or ugliness, mental stability, life in a madhouse or life in the middle of a peaceful, silent desert.

Whatever you're given can wake you up or put you to sleep. ...The only way to do this is to be open, be curious, and develop some sense of sympathy for everything that comes along, to get to know its nature and let it teach you what it will. It's going to stick around until you learn your lesson, at any rate...the same old demons will always come up until you learn the lesson, the lesson they came to teach you."

I had to go over to the hospital this week, to get an x-ray, a blood draw and to pick up some records to take to my new doctor. It was an interesting experience. I woke up in the middle of it.

First of all, it never occurred to me that you might need to book an appointment for a blood draw or chest x-ray. And I never thought that the lab would close at 2:00, as it is in the hospital, and there's a lab tech there 24 hours a day. So I arrived at the hospital at 1:50. By the time I stood in line and reached the registration window it was 2:00. Since I've dealt with the woman who registers patients before I wasn't surprised to find that she was busy shopping by phone and she made me wait while she finished placing her order.

She asked if I'd made appointments, which of course I hadn't, but she said, if I was lucky they might do the tests. But the cut-off time was 2:00 and by then it was 2:10.

In the lab the tech simply stuck her head out of the door and said, "I'll be with you in a minute!", but in the x-ray lab, which you could have fired a cannon through without scratching a living soul, the two technicians acted as if I'd asked for a kidney from each of them. After some discussion they decided they could "work me in", but only with rolling eyes and martyred looks.

The attitude at both the front desk and in the x-ray department said, "I'm in charge here, you are at my mercy. You'd better acknowledge my power if you want help."

In the past this kind of attitude made me see red. I'd have raged for days about it. But for the first time I finally saw this arrogance for what it is, a cry for validation, a desperate plea for recognition. "I feel like no one notices what I do!" it says, "please - tell me my work is important!" I thanked all four and told them how much I appreciated their kindness and help. All of them responded with warmth.

If no one tells a person that their work is valuable, that they do matter, they may resort to subterfuge, i.e. employing subtle, or not-so-subtle, power games to get the validation they need. Those who serve in the health care field need to be told frequently that their work matters, that it is especially appreciated when they show compassion and loving-kindness to patients and families. People who serve the ill have needs which are not often met in systems which stress efficiency and cost-cutting. It is not only the ill who are emotionally vulnerable and stressed.

I have a complex medical history, and I've dealt with many physicians and medical systems. Time and time again I have been astonished to find myself faced with rude, arrogant and even verbally abusive physicians. My Buddhist friend Iris says I have bad doctor karma.

From the Buddhist point of view, this recurring nightmare has something to teach me, and I think I may have waked up and realized what it is. I know my illness does indeed baffle (and frighten) a good many physicians. Maybe They are afraid that I expect them to be able to fix my problems. Maybe that's where our conversations should start, with my compassionate assurance that I do not expect them to cure me, but rather need them to act as my coach and advisor, as part of a mutually supportive team.

Time to leave bad doctor karma behind.

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