Most medical school applications of today state that the candidate for admission is interested in and fascinated by the human body. The problem with seeking medical help in the U.S. is that people come in with their mind, body, and spiritual beliefs, but this complete human package is immediately divided and categorized leaving patients feeling frustrated and often like they have not been heard or examined properly. This sense of estrangement disturbs physicians who have been given a great deal of medical information, but not a medical education. An education teaches you how to deal with and care for the human experience of illness and not just determine and treat a diagnosis. There is little more demoralizing for a patient in the exam room than to have the doctor staring at the computer screen while asking questions—no eye contact, no reassuring facial expression, and ultimately no understanding at all of how that individual patient might not fit perfectly into the information category the physician learned in medical school.
A medical education should not just teach the skill of communication, but emphasize it because doctors are communicating with people in distress or who are coping with a major disease or disorder, and being indifferent to the emotional state of the patient or using outright uncaring words have the very real risk of a seriously negative outcome of care. When we choose the vocabulary we use as doctors to talk with patients about their concerns, our words should help heal and not harm patients, just as we heal and do not wound when using a scalpel. One of our sons showed me how wordswordswords become swordswordswords when the words we choose exclude the feelings of the patient who is listening. Whether the patient has come in for a routine check-up, or with a devastating diagnosis, the words a doctor (or other healthcare provider) uses in conversation with those patients directly impact the outcome of care. Patients are individuals, and individuals are not statistics. They are unique unto themselves.
What I have found is that information does not change people. The obese, alcoholics, smokers, and non-compliant patients all know their behavior is not good for them. So why do they do it? It gets back to a lack of messages from parents, teachers, clergy, and other authority figures of love for the individual. Ugly ducklings rarely find out on their own that they are swans. In one study a loved child had one fourth the illness rate of an unloved child by middle age. I see pet owners who have lung cancer or asthma smoke outdoors to save their beloved pets. Killing yourself is not questioned. Nine hundred years ago Maimonides stated, “People would suffer fewer illnesses if they took as good care of themselves as they do their animals.” Times haven’t changed.
I have found that approximately 20% of patients are what I call “respants” which is word I created meaning Responsible Participants who are interested in learning survival behavior. What I do for the other 80% is love them and ask them to make return appointments which they can either keep or not. For those who do keep their appointments, I find that with time, and my love, some begin to realize that they are worth loving and caring for and so begin to care for, and about, themselves. In a sense they realize they are swans too, and are divine children. Then the information I present to them, in the context of their uniqueness as a person, and choosing words that heal and do not harm, can be accessed and used by patients to improve their health and survival outcomes.
As I said, I can’t sell them on the idea of being a respant, or cite better statistical outcomes if they follow my treatment plan because some patients simply aren’t interested in working at living. They have grown up hearing there is something wrong with them. So guilt, shame, and blame are what they are dealing with, and if you ask them to fight for their lives, in their minds, it is just one more thing they won’t get right—sad but true. I often ask people to answer questions, join support groups, and draw pictures of themselves, their treatment, and the disease. That eliminates many patients because they do not see themselves as artists and so again, in their minds, all they see is that “they could do it wrong.” And there are some patients who simply don’t want to work at surviving for reasons that do not come forth in talking with the doctor.
If I can inspire them and breathe life into them, then changes will occur. If my attempts to inspire them work, they wake up to life and are able to articulate what makes them happy. This is not about self-interest, but about paying attention to their bodies and what feels good for them to do. Studies show that on Monday mornings there are more heart attacks, suicides, and illnesses because of how we feel about our meaningless lives, often including the work we don’t want to do but feel we must do in order to make a living. I help people reclaim their lives and be reborn so that every cell in their body is given a message about the joys of life each day. Have I seen people expected to die in months cured of their disease by living in this new, positive way? Yes. Do I recommend it as the sole treatment? No, because I know how hard it is to “live in your heart and have magic happen” and to “leave all your troubles to God.”
I do, however, point out the benefits of love to patients and those around them. If patients are unwilling let me help them try a new perspective that could improve their health and outcome of their disease or disorder, I still let their families know that they, as observers of their loved one’s illness, must not let their own natural worry and despair deepen, but instead start practicing loving themselves, staying strong, and prioritize taking care of themselves. Why? Because there is something called Siegel’s sign in physical diagnosis. When a family walks into the doctor’s office and everyone looks sick except one person, you can be sure the one who looks well is the one with the illness, and he/she is using it to manipulate everyone else in the family. In these cases, I always guarantee the patient a cure on their next visit. They never come back to my office again, instead arranging future meetings with physicians in the ER or other safe places where a cure is not available. Take a good look at how you were parented—did you get the attention you craved from your mother and/or father only when you were sick? Often this is the root of developing into a patient who will not get better because that attention remains a priority for the rest of his/her life.
Remember this: The medical system in the U.S. is disease-oriented. There are some efforts to promote wellness and prevention of illness, but our system remains overwhelmingly disease-oriented. Many patients express guilt for wasting the doctor’s time if they come in and don’t have anything wrong with them. Instead, they should be congratulated by the doctor for staying well. The doctor should ask what they are doing to stay in good health and continue to emphasize that all through the time a patient comes to that doctor’s practice. This also makes it much more likely that if a disease or disorder does begin to develop, it can be caught early.
What do respants do that represents survival behavior? They take action, seek wisdom, perform meditation and visual imagery—and have spiritual support. Spiritual support may come from a religion, but some religions are based on tenets that create guilt and lead to feelings that one deserves God’s punishment. Disease is no different than when one loses one’s car keys. You don’t say “God wants me to walk home.” You look for your keys. When you are ill, it is not a punishment from God. I believe that spiritual beliefs give you the tools to be a respant if you have lost your health, and support you on your healing journey to restore wellness.
Respants live a life with meaning, express their feelings including appropriate anger, ask for help when it is needed, learn to say no to things they do not want to do, make their own decisions about treatment that is offered, bring play and humor into their lives, deal with feelings of depression and learn from them, and do not live a “role,” but instead, by looking deep within live as their authentic self for the rest of their lives. In essence, life becomes a labor pain in which we give birth to our authentic self, and because we are respants, fully participating in making the choices as mentioned above, the delivery is less painful and comes with fewer complications and side effects, if any.
About 20 years ago, I met Susan Duffy who had developed scleroderma and was not given much time to live. She was an enraged lady over her illness and her difficult life. Her parents and sister were alcoholics who committed suicide and were angry at her for not following their destructive path. When I met her, all I could do was listen, and her story brought to my mind a quote from the inspirational Helen Keller who said, “Deafness is darker by far than blindness.” When Susan emptied out her rage in 1987, she wrote me a letter telling me that she had let love into her prison and it had touched every negative item in it, transforming them all into something meaningful. She is alive today and, as member of our support group, was one of my teachers. Susan’s love extends outward with her desire to share the comprehensive and wonderful List for Survivors that she created from experience and knowledge which you will find at the end of this article.
Eight years ago my phone rang and the caller asked me for Jack Kevorkian’s home number. I learned from the caller, Becky, why she wanted to die. First, I told Becky that she is a child of God, and then I asked her to send me some drawings. I don’t tell people “don’t smoke or commit suicide.” I say, “I love you and God loves you,” then I ask, “Why hurt a child of God?” Becky and I have worked on her pain, and she is alive today. I volunteered to be her CD or Chosen Dad, and she allowed me that privilege. What is my role as her CD? It is to love her no matter what she does. I don’t have to like her behavior while I continue to love her. Telling someone that you don’t like their behavior or actions is very different than saying that there is something wrong the person him/or herself…and withdrawing your love.
Becky has helped me with others who are considering suicide. Her help motivates me all the more to call for medical students today to be comprehensively educated about the issue of suicide. They need to be taught that being severe and judgmental is cruel and certainly not the path to saving a life. They need to learn how to say to patients in a suicidal crisis that they, as a physician, may not like the action contemplated by the patient, but that doesn’t change the fact that they care deeply about the patient as a fellow human being and that they, as a physician, will do all in their power to assemble the resources to support the patient as that patient learns to understand and love themselves.
When I ask medical students to draw themselves as doctors, the majority of the drawings are totally depersonalizing. Some show no human beings—only computers, instruments, diplomas, and books. But one drawing from a medical student that is in my collection shows a young man kneeling and handing the patient a tissue. When Becky saw that one, her comment was that when someone responds to her needs, she regains the will to live. And that response may be as simple as finding a tissue for someone who needs one.
I do not criticize people for their choices, but try and help them find what is right for them. In doing so, I help them find new options and paths to healing their lives, and hopefully their illnesses as well. Death is not a failure and it is inevitable. I remind people to change the focus from one of trying to avoid death to one of enjoying life to the fullest. I believe this perspective leads to happiness whether you are ill or not. If you are ill and spend all of your time trying to avoid dying to the exclusion of loving yourself and your life just as it is, you will end up being very angry when you do fully realize that life has a 100% mortality rate. But whether you are in good health or coping with a debilitating disorder or disease, when you enjoy life and love your body just as it is, the bonus is a longer healthier life.
We each need to find our path and way to heal. The messages are age-old and can be found in the literature of great spiritual leaders, the U.S. Marines training manual, the writings of children with cancer, the incredible and inspirational stories patients have related to me and permitted me to share in my books, and other resources from Laughter Workshops to Meditation Classes and support groups.
Two things are key elements on a healing journey. One is being inspired by the knowledge of your genuine self and being surrounded by positive people in your life who love and believe in you. The second is one’s behavior in which you disassociate your newly discovered genuine self from the “old self” and begin to behave as if you are the person you want to be. You rehearse, practice, and find coaches to help guide you. That is the role I see myself in today—as a coach for the inspired respant who wants to learn and practice survival behavior.
How will you know a good coach(s) for you when you meet them?
Ask these questions:
- “I am taking you to dinner—what do you want?”
- “How would you introduce yourself to God?”
- “What should I hang in the lobby of public buildings with a sign above it that says,
Come and See How Beautiful and Meaningful Life Is?”
The correct answers are:
- The response should be within 5-10 seconds demonstrating they are in touch with their feelings and not thinking about fat content, cost, or what you want.
- The introduction is that you and God don’t need an introduction you are a child of God.
- You don’t hang a picture of a baby, rainbow, or flower—but a mirror.
As promised, here is Susan’s invaluable list for survivors—those who practice survival behaviors. You might want to post it someplace you can see it many times every day.
THE FOLLOWING ARE FROM SUSAN DUFFY’S SECRETS OF LIVING FOR SURVIVORS
- Trust yourself enough to become your own teacher.
- Cultivate your own sense of being and spirituality.
- Trust in your own instincts, intuitions and leadings.
- Learn to flow with your own ideas concerning searching and seeking answers.
- Choose to have faith in yourself and your place in life.
- Discipline yourself to love the positive more than the negative.
- Let go of everything that you can’t change.
- Change yourself through self-acceptance and love then what happens around you won’t matter.
- Learn to forgive the unforgivable and you will become free.
- Forgive God, others and yourself.
- Allow yourself to feel anger, pain, joy and sadness.
- Express your feelings and don’t feel so alone.
- Everything changes.
- Look to other people for guidance and inspiration but not answers.
- Other people don’t have all the answers they are learning too.
- Nothing so bad ever happened to you that didn’t happen to someone else.
- No one is unique we all suffer the same joys and pains of life.
- Our problems may come in different shapes and sizes but the solutions are the same.
- Embrace life it will hug you back.
- Don’t have a need to control.
- Allow the order of things to take place. God knows what He is doing.
- Enjoy the peace knowing someone bigger and stronger is in charge.
- Don’t make too many schedules you will go crazy.
- You can’t fix everything; you are not the creator.
- Have faith and trust in the things you don’t understand. Life will become easier.
- Nothing ever happens to you that is not for your good in the bigness of things.
- Deal with grief, pain and loss when they happen and you won’t have to relive them.
- Don’t make too many plans for the future life may step in.
- Love is the greatest healer there is.
- The less you need someone the more you can love them.
- Rest when you need to no one else can do it for you.
- Never stop learning you will become bored.
- Behind every cloud of adversity is a silver lining. Have the courage and faith to find it.
- Good and bad events are the pieces of the puzzle that make life complete.
- God heals. Doctors get paid for it.
- Letting go of those we love is the greatest gift of love we can give them.
- Live each day as if it were your last. You will have a lot of great days.
- Don’t live a life of confusion you will get lost.
- Love unconditionally those unable to love back and you will be set free.
- Pray, meditate, sit quietly, take walks.
- Look up to something bigger than you are, life, love, God.
- Allow yourself to make mistakes. Then move on life is too short.
- Live a life of prayer and you can get through anything.
- Learn to laugh at yourself and you will make friends with yourself.
- Know you are a child of God.
- God loves you even when you think no one else does.
- Be your own person in all things.
- When you know yourself other people will know you too.
- Learn to accept criticism, advice and suggestions. They can help you.
- Be humble when you receive praise.
- Don’t get stuck following one religion, group or person move forward.
- Life holds the wisdom, answers and solutions that any person could ever need their life.
- Have the courage to explore.
- Open to life. Feel it, experience it, live it and you will learn to fly (transcend).
I know you join me in sending many thanks to Susan. And let me end with a very positive action each and every one of you can take to turn your life around and commit to being mostly positive. Learn to live in the moment as children and animals do. You don’t have to have children and animals to do this—just go to a park, a good friend’s house, or out with a sibling who has kids or grandkids and/or pets and observe the joy these little humans and pets have playing right in the moment without thoughts about the past or the future. Your immune system will thank you for the respite from negativity and respond by getting stronger.
To put it in the words of one of my patients, “I want to be dying forever.” If we live with a sense of time that allows for healthy humor, observing the beauty all around us and within us, and giving and receiving love, we learn how to spend our time wisely—and that it is everything, because ultimately what is immortal is not our body, but our love.
Blessings to all,