Most doctors endure long hours. They are almost always on call, they have high demands and expectations placed on them, and they often receive very little appreciation.
Before undergoing a hernia operation several years ago in Washington, D.C., the doctor confided in me about his marriage: “Father, my marriage is going through some major bumps. I would be very grateful if you could keep me in your prayers. It’s not easy being a committed doctor while also trying to keep my family together.”
“We can lose our way with patients who have difficult personalities or unrealistic expectations.”
Another doctor mentioned that part of his job seemed to be acting as “a counselor or therapist for many patients. They feel very comfortable opening up their deepest personal and emotional wounds, and they look to me for advice. This often goes way beyond my professional expertise, and even though I encourage them to see a trained psychologist, many keep coming back with their problems. It can be draining.”
In my priestly ministry, I have the privilege of knowing many “holy” doctors. So I asked one who stands out for her gentleness and kindness, Dr. Florencia Damavandy, based in Philadelphia, to share her experiences.
“As a pediatrician, I encounter medical and social challenges with each little patient I see,” she told me. “While I am humbled by the amazing privilege I have to care for children and their families, the pressures of clinical practice can sometimes seep into the sacred doctor-patient relationship.”
“After a frenetic morning of patient care, it is common to be running at least a few minutes late, and perhaps hours behind, on documentation,” she continued. “Working through many complaints, ranging from routine well-child visits requiring vaccines and infectious illnesses to much more disastrous [personal] circumstances [for patients], can easily deplete one’s emotional reserve. Recently, after such a morning, I looked forward to a 30-minute respite to eat, return patient phone calls, and review test results. As I sat at my desk, a nurse came to my office to say that my 10:15 a.m. appointment had just arrived, two hours late and still hoping to be seen.”
The doctor went on: “Hungry and behind schedule, I mulled the possibility of rescheduling the patient for a later date. It is, after all, allowable policy in most offices to reschedule patients who arrive 15 minutes past their scheduled time. But I agreed to see the patient and returned to the clinical space. I entered the room briskly, introduced myself, and while making poor eye contact, I asked in a relatively apathetic tone how I could be of service. I knew I was doing it all wrong, yet I let a lapse in willpower and kindness get the best of me.”
“When I looked up and saw the eyes of a frightened young mother holding her two-month-old daughter,” she continued, “I paused, smiled warmly, and proceeded to discuss her concerns. At the end of the visit, I knew I made the right decision. Kindness and patience are easier to practice at the beginning of our day when we’re feeling energized. It is especially easier with people we connect with and can relate to the most. Yet once we’re pushed to the limits of our attention and daily reserves, we can lose our way with patients who have difficult personalities or unrealistic expectations.”
She concluded: “I have found that before going into the room of a patient, taking a moment to say a little prayer or to take a deep breath helps remind me my patients have their own challenges and crosses that they are bearing. Investing the time and energy in exercising patience and kindness in clinical practice helps me provide the best care I can.”
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminds us: “The Christian’s project, taken from Jesus’ teaching, is ‘a heart that sees’ where love is needed and acts appropriately” (Angelus, July 11, 2010).
A heart also responds with love to the deep needs of those whom God puts in our path each day. We are all called to be “healing doctors,” sensitive and attentive to the needs and wounds of others.
We shouldn’t be afraid or hold back from going the extra mile, and if needed, to “pause and smile warmly” regardless of our own personal feelings. The world is thirsting for love and attention. Allow God’s light to shine through you.
Fr. Michael Sliney, LC, is a Catholic priest who is the New York chaplain of the Lumen Institute, an association of business and cultural leaders.