While I feel privileged to practice medicine, from time to time I find myself becoming burned out and discouraged. Spending the time needed to care for a person at their clinic appointment without falling behind in the day’s schedule, angry calls from patients about their insurance no longer covering the medications they’ve been on for years, the sheer volume of labs to respond to and paperwork to review–all of this can leave a physician feeling like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the endless mountain. When I feel this way, the writing of Daniel Sulmasy helps me to regain perspective. Sulmasy is an internist, palliative care physician, bioethicist, philosopher, and former Franciscan friar who serves on the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. I had the chance to meet and talk with Sulmasy for a while at a conference a few years ago and found him to be kind, gracious, and humble.
Here are a couple of passages from his book The Healer’s Calling. It should be noted that Sulmasy is a Christian and these passages reflect his spiritual tradition:
“For the health care professional, love for one’s patients alone will not ultimately satisfy. Patients can be very fickle. They can bring frivolous lawsuits against those who did their best in love to help them, and this can be deeply hurtful. Patients can be demanding at times. The relationship to the patient will not be a full healing relationship if one cannot see it in the context of one’s relationship with God–one’s spirituality. If a health care professional is not careful to cultivate a spiritual life, he or she will quickly end up becoming cynical about patients. No physician or nurse will last very long in health care looking to patients themselves for personal satisfaction. Patients can only be the point of departure. They are not the source of satisfaction, but signposts that point the way to satisfaction. Physicians and nurses are really doing their jobs when they see each patient as a precious being swept up into the mystery of God’s love. . . No matter how sophisticated the technology of healing gets, true healing will involve three very simple human elements: compassion, touch, and conversation.”
Sulmasy’s words are lofty and well beyond what I achieve except in my very best moments. Nonetheless, he offers a noble vision of medicine that calls health professionals to strive toward something higher amid the daily stress and frustrations of clinical practice.