A MERE CHRISTIAN PHYSICIAN
Yesterday was the kind of day where I was strongly reminded that I am such a well compensated introvert that I sometimes even fool myself. Conversations, even good ones, are incredibly draining to me and having several of those over the course of one day was enough to make me thankful for my non-verbal patients whose active medical issues are now under control as they await acceptance into a nursing home. I started off rounds by spending nearly an hour with my first patient of the day. No exaggeration. I suppose I could have been rude and cut him off mid dialogue. I could have made it clear that I was in a hurry even though I wasn’t. I also could have acted disinterested in what he had to say, but I wasn't.
To ensure that I wouldn't discount the importance of this particular conversation which would set the tone for the remainder my day, the good LORD put an important podcast on my radar the day before. My husband mentioned listening to Jordan Raynor interview Jodie Benson (the original Little Mermaid’s speaking and singing voice) on his show, Mere Christians. It sounded interesting so I asked him to forward it to me. Prior to hearing about this episode, I didn’t know of her devout Christian faith and willingness to speak openly about it, especially at Disney promotional events. Its probably no secret to most that the musical theater industry and the Disney corporation are not Christian organizations. This is not a sin in and of itself. However, both industries have dived head first into promoting messages that many parents of faith are not in agreement with. Ideas of self-service, unrepressed sexual indulgence, excess, waste, reckless consumerism, greed, ruthless competitiveness, violence, and the glorification of practically every sin you can think of are becoming more commonplace in the content they produce and among the creative minds, actors, and executives behind them.
People like Benson are rare and reliable sources of GOD's light in those dark spaces. Perhaps I may not agree with her on politics, preferred Sunday morning worship style, or sexual/gender ethics (I have no idea, I'm just speculating) but this woman was positively radiating with the love of Jesus in that interview. Despite the fact that Ariel is easily my least favorite Disney princess, Benson has remained my favorite Disney princess actress precisely because of her winsome persona. Her voice is perpetually youthful. By this, I don’t mean immature. I mean that her sound is light, joyous, and kind. Her singing voice at sixty sounds no less mesmerizing than when she played the character over thirty years ago. To watch her perform or interact in an interview is to witness what its like to dwell in a near constant posture of contentment that does not come across as forced or artificial in any way.
I walked away from that interview challenged to be kinder in my day to day interactions. I resonated with the message I heard that GOD isn’t interested in our ideas of perfection so much as He is interested in our brokenness and willingness. He is delighted when we use our gifts to bless our surroundings and the people who inhabit them. So even as I started to get annoyed 10 minutes into the conversation with this patient, I took an internal pause and spoke to GOD about it quietly in my mind. I thanked Him for making that interview accessible to me at just the right time. Just like Ms. Benson, I found myself asking Him to abide with me in that room and to attune my eyes/ears to what He might be accomplishing in that moment through me. I didn't want to miss the opportunity to be a blessing and to remind this lonely, incredibly ill man that he was known and loved by GOD, even if that meant having a much longer day than planned.
Admittedly, it would have been a strange conversation had you happened to overhear it. I would summarize it as follows: this patient is a Lutheran who does not participate much with the church anymore. However, he believes that he was given special abilities to understand spiritual things, interact with the dead, and witness moments in time (past and future). Obviously, there are people in his life (his children included) who think he’s a little crazy. I honestly didn't feel that way as I was listening to him. I think that for whatever reason, he knew he could entrust me with these bizarre stories. He somehow sensed that I wouldn't dismiss him or try to explain these things away. He truly believes that part of his purpose on Earth involves using these unusual gifts to help and guide others. Who am I to call any of this untrue? I’m certainly not his god.
As I listened to him, I was reminded of part of the Nicene Creed that my church brothers and sisters say every Sunday. We believe in one GOD, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is visible and invisible. Proclaiming to believe an invisible world week after week ought to mean that a conversation like that would not take me off guard. I have a bit of a Dr. Strange multi-verse of madness going on in my brain anyway. I contemplate concepts like unbound time, whether or not the size of the universe is measurable, and the existence of alternate dimensions and realities. I remember settling on the thought quite a long time ago that the way in which GOD has ordered the passage of time, the laws of nature, and the delineation between natural and spiritual things may be unique to Earth and primarily for the benefit of humankind. Perhaps, out of His mercy towards us and desire for us to thrive in an environment that we could somewhat make sense of, He bound our existence to this particular reality. I think, perhaps, that most humans lack the openness and breadth of understanding that is needed to interact with the eternal and intricate complexities of the universe. A certain amount of intentional blindsiding may be necessary for most of us to maintain a sense of security.
Recently, I have begun to wonder if dreams can serve as a plane in which we can begin to interact with these usually hidden realities. For the past several months, I have begun to dream nearly every night and more vividly than I ever have before. I have interacted with strangers who seem familiar only to much later realize that I have seen them before in a dream. When my sister-in-law passed away, I recall a very vivid interaction with her in the home where she was living with my in-laws that happened the evening after her funeral. I can feel myself developing a sixth sense that helps me navigate tough situations surrounding illness and death. I find myself forming these deep connections with some patients and/or their families where they end up asking me for prayer or telling me that they have seen me or spoken to me at times when I was clearly not at the hospital. Its as if GOD is opening a small window of the supernatural to me and I am treading in it very timidly without even fully realizing what I'm doing. What other conduits may serve a similar purpose in connecting us with these unseen realities. Perhaps prayer or deep meditation on scripture?
What I’m getting at is that no Christian should discount the supernatural because it is all over the pages of the Bible. You also don’t have to be a Christian to have supernatural encounters. I think that ghost hunters, tarot card readers, fortune tellers, yoga masters, and magicians are operating in realms that they do not and cannot fully understand. I believe that witchcraft, demon possession, and devil worship are very real but dark realities that are beyond human control. I also think that attempting to navigate anything supernatural without clear wisdom to discern good from evil and without clear alignment with the GOD of the universe is a dangerous and potentially destructive path. So yea, I was the right person to listen to all of what this man had to say and take it into serious consideration. As the conversation was drawing to a close, it felt very natural for me to say a blessing over this patient. Discerning moments when prayer would be well received is becoming easier and more natural to me but it certainly did not happen overnight. I asked GOD to show this man what these experiences and visions meant and how he should respond to them. I also prayed that he would be protected from dark or deceptive spiritual interactions and not be led into eternal separation from GOD in his searching.
Education, training, and competency can only get you so far in medicine. Interacting with patients meaningfully and well can certainly be improved upon over time but can’t really be taught. How do you teach someone to have a demeanor that tends to put people at ease? What could possibly incentivize a person to spend additional time attending to the mental, social, and spiritual needs of their patients in addition to their physical ones? The answer to both questions for me, is the love of GOD. Practicing medicine is more than just doing a job to me. It’s a regular opportunity to inject joy into a somber moment, calm anxieties, dispel fears, demonstrate affection, alleviate fears, and pour out compassion. I sometimes sit down and simply have a meaningful conversation. I allow patients to share their stories, not just their medical history, and sometimes to ask me about my life. I help them in ways that I strictly don't have to, like giving them the inside scoop on a particularly good or bad nursing home. I have helped them locate community programs, free our discounted resources, and primary care doctors. For patients who are unable, I have fed them, brought them beverages, and wiped their faces clean of secretions and food. I speak to them even if they can't respond or speak back. I do these things because these lack of abilities do not make them less human and also because these are things that I would want done for me if our roles were reversed. The patients that most people run away from, I run towards (certainly not all of them, trust me). The patients most people ignore, I tend to pay close attention to. I treat every patient like a VIP because that's the way it should be. It's an exhausting way to practice medicine but I don't know any other way to do it well. And so, with GOD's grace, I am able to do it every...single...time.
When you begin to realize the potential significance of your interactions, it changes your posture and your pace of life. I went from messaging my husband that I was frustrated about never being the person who can "get in and get out quickly" at the hospital to completely letting go of the idea of trying to control the timing and flow of the day. The more I fight the things that slow me down, the more ineffective and unhappy I become. Its when I let go of that time as being "my time" and start to think of it as GOD's time that He is allowing me to operate in, my attitude shifts and the work becomes easier. Everyday that I show up for work, I am eventually faced with this decision. I have to decide if I'm going to willingly participate in GOD's plan for this particular day and for these particular people or if I'm going to waste my efforts in a vain attempt to try and do what's most convenient for me. I will never be able to approach life or my workday in the same way that unbelievers do. That's not meant to sound self-aggrandizing towards me or deprecating towards non-Christians. I'm just recognizing the fact that life would be far easier if I just punched the figurative clock everyday. The fruit of a deeply rooted Christian life will always look different because it has to and because it was meant to.
I spent the last part of my workday sitting with a dying patient and his family. The effort to breath and stay awake was getting more difficult for him and his wife wore the face of someone who knew her time as a widow was drawing near. I did not expect him to survive the night so I did not rush my good-byes. After this fourteen hour day, I placed my stethoscope back in my bag and donned my fall jacket. As I took the long walk down the quiet hospital corridors and out to the dimly lit parking lot, I felt the grief begin to stir in my heart. Warm tears began to sting my eyes for this man and his family who were complete strangers to me just three days before. Most people in medicine learn to inadvertently harden themselves to sickness and death as a matter of self-preservation. By the grace of GOD, mine has grown softer and more tender with each passing year. He has shown me that when I am willing to have my heart broken in service to these patients and their families, He will repair it with more capacity for compassion and goodness than the time before. Being present and emotionally vulnerable to my patients has made me braver than I ever thought I could be. On a day when I should have felt drained and weary to my very bones at the end of it, I felt full. I got to participate in a miracle that day. I watched the LORD feed a multitude with my nearly empty stores leaving plenty of leftovers to feed me as well. He reversed the illusion of scarcity to which most of us are captive and revealed that by His power, I had plenty to give away. How can I not rejoice and be glad in that? To know that I can be the answer to someone's prayer for hope, comfort, or companionship amidst the ashes of their fear and grief has been one of the great privileges of my career and one of the highest honors of my lay Christian life. Thank you LORD, for the heavy things I had to bear that day and for bearing them right along with me. I praise you for the fulfillment and growth I experienced by enduring it. Indeed, I thank you and praise you for ALL of it. Amen.
Stay thoughtful, friends.
My Help, Ron Winans + CeCe Winans
Jordan Raynor interviews Jodie Benson