Physician, healthy self?

Surgeon General’s Warning: Providing health may be hazardous to your health.

Being a doctor is not as glamorous as TV series would lead one to believe. For one thing, the patients are really sick and not just lovesick (although, sometimes, they are sick all over you). When the Black Death struck Europe, being a doctor was a somewhat life-limiting choice. Mission doctors to Africa and Asia in the 19th century also had rather short life spans (often measured in months, not years). But early death among doctors is not just a historical phenomenon.

You’d think that today’s doctors would live longer because they know more about health, but the pressure of providing a health service is in itself unhealthy. To this day, doctors tend to have shorter lifespans than their patients. At the very least, they don’t live much longer than their patients. The modern “plague” of stress, resulting in stroke, heart disease and suicide (to mention but a few) takes a heavy toll among doctors.

Interestingly (although I have no real statistics on this), I get the distinct impression that (as a group) “health gurus” fare no better than doctors when it comes to lifespan. Despite all the hype and billions of dollars spent on health and long life, we “health experts” are little more than the blind leading the blind.

Those in need of health want more than prescriptions, warnings and advice. They want role models. But the system is deeply flawed – the very way in which the professional encounter is designed prevents meaningful role modelling. After all, you see almost nothing of your doctor’s or guru’s private life. What is visible, is sanitised and, well, sterile. The yucky, unpredictable juice of real life has been drained from what we see. What is left is glamorous and (let’s be honest) fake. But patients demand perfection and healthcare providers happily oblige. The result is a bottomless gulf between reality and expectation – no amount of money can ever bridge this vast divide.

This “therapeutic distance” is not a recent or even a Western thing. Even shamans wear masks and special clothes to set them apart (and to hide their fallible humanity). In every culture I’ve seen, the “medicine (wo)men” are treated specially and they take quite some care to hide their own fragility behind a façade of strength.

You may wonder where this is leading to. My early frustration with my non-compliant patients was – I now realise – a frustration with my own limitations, as well as with the limits of the brief patient encounter. Two souls in one room, separated by mountains of culture, knowledge, experience and belief. How can they ever touch meaningfully? Can I blame my patients for not doing what I told them?

Ironically, it takes brokenness for two otherwise alienated souls to meet face to face.

The illnesses, treatments, surgeries and side effects that affected me over the years have made it possible for me to enter the “therapeutic relationship” in a much more honest way than my circumstances would normally permit. Once I learnt this truth, I also began allowing the pain of others to reach me and wound me deeply, in order that I might thereby one day help others with similar wounds.

Say a prayer for your physician – (s)he needs it more than you will ever know. Those who think they are well are the furthest from the cure.

To your health!

Doc Frank
CEO & Founder: Integrow Health