Archive for October, 2009

Physician Writers

I’ve been reading a lot of books by physicians in the past year, beginning with Rachel Naomi Remen’s “Kitchen Table Wisdom” and its sequel. I just finished “Close to the Bone” by Jean Shinoda Bolen and “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese. All share a wonderful ability to tell stories, often based on encounters with their patients. I am most intrigued with how they allow those experiences to shed light on their own human- and healing- journey. As physicians we are privileged to share in the sacred moments of life and death and everything in between. The special gift is to take the time and the risk to enter into those experiences at a deeper level. In this way we continue to learn and we hopefully become more compassionate healers through telling the stories to ourselves and to others.

We go beyond “meaning in medicine” to meaning in suffering, meaning in mystery, meaning in life’s journey at every turn in the road.

I am grateful to these mentors and colleagues who have developed the art of medicine and shared it in literary form. They inspire me to continue this little blog, my “Desert Blooms” newsletter for the project in Anapra, my occasional articles for our congregational publication. Telling the stories is therapeutic. It is also my way of giving thanks.


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I saw a basket of pink plastic bracelets on the table for Breast Cancer Awareness month.  I picked one up and it said “Survivor”.  Without a second thought I slipped it on my wrist as I said to my companion, “I can wear this.  I’m an ovarian cancer survivor.”

Later as I was walking to the car I noticed the pink band and the word.  I took in a deep breath.  Am I really a survivor?  It’s something that’s been on my mind recently, especially since a recent conversation with a woman who is on the last part of her journey with ovarian cancer.  Something seems presumptuous about this declaration.  I have indeed survived the surgery, survived the chemotherapy, survived the year since finishing treatment.

I try to begin each day with wonder: For what, this day,  has God given me life and health? I try to end each day with gratitude:  What blessings have I received and did I notice?

But if tomorrow or next week or next month or next year the cancer returns, would I have to cut this bracelet off my arm?  I think not.  For the blessings of all the days, with cancer or without, are a triumph when we live with eyes wide open to God’s goodness. 

As St. Paul says, “In all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any created thing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God, known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom.8:37-39)

We are all survivors. Survivor!

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My Mexico Day

Most Tuesdays I spend in Anapra, Mexico at our Santo Nino project for children with special needs. Once upon a (busy) time in what seems a life far, far away, I used to work in my little office, seeing sick babies and pregnant moms, and in between patients I would drive around the colonia picking up those who didn’t have rides. Some days it was really a hectic pace and always it was physically and emotionally draining.

Even before my illness we had started focusing our efforts on the children with special needs- and pregnant women- and other volunteers did the driving so I could spend my time at the clinic. While I was out for six months during my recuperation from surgery and chemotherapy we stopped doing prenatal care. When I returned, I felt like I just wanted time with the kids. They are the heart of the ministry and have so much to teach me, so close are they to God.

One of the best parts of my Mexico day is sitting with Nena. I know I shouldn’t have favorites…but I do and Nena is. She is about seven years old now and has a severe form of epilepsy with mental retardation. When she gets agitated because it’s not her turn in the jacuzzi or because she’s tired or just because maybe she’s having a bad day, I seem to have a way to connect with her. As big as she is now- about seventy pounds!- she loves to sit on my lap in the rocking chair. As soon as I start singing our special song to the Blessed Mother she takes my St. Elizabeth Seton medal in her hands and quiets. Usually she drifts off to sleep.

Sitting with Nena is one of the very best things about my Mexico day. God only knows what goes on in her mind and heart but during the moments we have together I am aware of the blessing of her life- and mine.nena and me

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Local Poverty

I’ve been invited to speak at two parish JustFaith groups this week. My topic is “Local Poverty”. I’ve been thinking about my experiences here at the border since 1991. I often thought that my medical specialty was more appropriately “poverty medicine” than “family practice” since I’ve always worked with those who lacked access to health care. Especially the years in the colonias at La Clinica Guadalupana gave me an experience of “local poverty”. Many homes with no running water, pirated electricity, no septic system, poor insulation and ventilation.

But in my reflections today I’m wondering about local poverty much closer to home. So much in our culture celebrates independence, individualism, self-sufficiency. The news-especially the editorial page- is full of mean-spirited rhetoric that blames the poor for being poor.

Are any of us truly “self-made”? Have any of us not been subsidized along the way? Received what we did not merit?

My reflection on “local poverty” today is to get in touch with my own total dependence on God and to remember the people in my life who have supported me, fed and clothed me, taught me, nurtured me, cared for me in my need.

Later this week, as I dare to speak for those who have allowed me to serve them in their need, may I remember that all of us are beggars before God.

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Good Samaritan

I’ve heard the parable of the Good Samaritan three times today.  Each time my heart caught at the mention that the compassionate stranger poured wine and oil onto the victim’s wounds.  Strange concoction…but then again, maybe not!  Ingredients of a basic “dressing”, no?  And the Good Samaritan must have had some sense that this was a healing balm.  I reflected that this probably wasn’t the first time that he (or she) had interrupted plans to help someone in need.  It must have been a habit developed over the course of years.

I guess all of us wonder if we would have stopped.  That is part of Jesus’ genius in the story: to get us wondering…who am I in this picture?  I think that I’ve played every part now. 

The experience of being one in need, even sometimes unconsciously, who receives care from the most unexpected sources, should sensitize my heart to the needs of others.  It should keep me from being so self-absorbed, from averting my eyes and closing my ears.

And if that is not enough reason to think twice before walking by another’s need, Jesus also reminds me, “What you do to the least of these, you do to me.”

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