the vulnerable encounter


If you have ever been sick, you understand how it feels to be vulnerable. Now, whenever I mention “sickness”, I am not referring to a cold or sinus infection; here, I am referring to the flu, stomach virus, pneumonia, “mono,” etc. These sicknesses are very easy to definitively diagnose; usually a simple blood or throat swab will suffice. If you are sick with any one of these, you will most likely be taken care of by somebody that cares about you and that you trust (mom, dad, wife, husband, sibling). Essentially, you will have to be vulnerable to another person in your suffering.

Let’s say you get sick with something that isn’t so easy to diagnose – a disease or condition that is rare and not well understood. What if you got diagnosed with a stomach virus but the symptoms last longer than expected, and after a multitude of tests, you have the doctors stumped? What if a sickness that looked like pneumonia, acted like pneumonia, and sounded like pneumonia, ended up being a medical mystery? What if what seemed to be classic “mono,” was later discovered to be an incurable condition with an unknown origin? I bring all of these situations up because I have seen every one of them occur. These are real people in real life situations.

What is a patient expected to do in these situations? If a patient is told that there is nothing that medicine can do besides control the symptoms, more often then not, the patient will keep looking for an answer regardless of what a single doctor says. Understandably, the patient will keep coming back seeking healing, answers, or consolation.

It was nothing but the grace of God that led me to the bedside of a Ms. Susan. Ms. Susan was a 65 year old female who had a rare, chronic, and incurable medical condition which caused severe pain in her arms and legs. It was so rare, that the physician had to do research to learn more about it because he had never heard of it before. After a very thorough work up in the ED, including multiple scans and various degrees of blood work, it was determined that her current flare-up did not require immediate medical intervention; she was instructed to go see her neurologist for further evaluation and options for control. This specific condition is not well known and there are no effective treatments besides controlling the pain, and, with regards to the ED, there is only so much treatment that can be done before the patient needs a specialist who is experienced with treating these types of complex illnesses. Whenever I went into the room, I encountered a very angry, discontent patient. She was not happy that she was not getting answers. Throughout the course of our conversation, she began to disclose very intimate parts of her marriage and family life; essentially, she was in deep emotional pain in conjunction with her physical ailment. She was making a grand plea for help; more then anything, she just wanted an answer for why all of this was happening to her. Finally, I asked her the question, “Ms. Susan, do you pray?” She responded, “yes, I pray all the time.” I responded to her, “Would it be okay if I pray with you?,” and she responded with something that I wasn’t expecting. She said, “I have been waiting for somebody to ask me that.”

If you were to look solely at the conversation we had prior to asking her whether she prayed, you wouldn’t expect her to be desiring such an encounter. She seemed bitter, annoyed, angry, and frustrated with nearly every aspect of her stay. However, I realized something as I pondered this encounter; she was looking for answers not only for her medical condition but also for why she was suffering. She was trying to understand why she, who seemingly lived a relatively good life, was suffering from this incurable medical condition, struggling to keep her marriage together, and having difficulty keeping communication with her children.

Ms. Susan is not the only patient like this, for I have encountered numerous patients who question why they are suffering to the degree that they are, granted that they have never done anything astoundingly malicious in their life. My goal is to not answer this question, for that is a whole another topic, but I want to bring attention the significance of this encounter. Here you have a soul, who after attempting to find peace in physical medicine, finds itself empty and begins to reach upward. This soul’s upward yearning is an occasion of immense importance and must be recognized and cared to with extraordinary diligence. Possibly for the first time in this soul’s journey on earth, they may have began to finally look up.

St. Francis of Assisi took the world by storm by embracing a very radical form a poverty. He embraced poverty to such a degree that he believed that the only thing that he owned was his sins, and for this reason, he desired to be buried absolutely naked. Some question why he began to practice this charism to such an extreme degree, and to be honest, it is a very good question. He saw first hand the corruptness of the church during his formative years in the clergy and the benedictine monasteries. He saw firsthand how much ownership and authority over posessions disordered the soul away from God. Because of this perspective, he saw absolutely everything as a gift. Because he had nothing, anything, and I mean anything, even mockery, was seen as a complete and total gift.

Because St. Francis of Assisi did not own anything, there was nothing to come between him and his Creator. By owning absolutely nothing, he was able to be fully owned by his Creator. It was the purging of his false ideas of ownership that led him to a deeper communion with God since there was nothing to get in the way. Likewise, patients in similar situations as Ms. Susan, are experiencing this poverty – lack of health, knowledge, and stability. These patients are having the consolation of knowing what is going on with there own body stripped away for reasons that are known only between that soul and its Creator. One can speculate reasons, but each is specific to that person. Through the lens of St. Francis of Assisi, this circumstance is desired for it is through this purgation period that a greater confidence, trust, and abandonment is fostered!

Even though this circumstance sounds fruitful, which it is, the process to become as detached and completely owned by God like St. Francis of Assisi is a very painful process physically, mentally, and spiritually. Because of this, it is very easy to write off the anger, frustration, and demeanor of a patient in this circumstance to that of an annoyance or burden. It is easy to see the frequency of their visits as a burden rather an opportunity for an encounter. I have witnessed so many patients in this state, one in which their soul is being actively purged of the consolation of their own health, be seen as a “troll” or “out of their mind.” What a tragedy that a soul undergoing its own dark knight, coupled with a chronic physical ailment, is mocked and persecuted.

I must recognize the reality that from a medical standpoint, there was nothing that the ED could do for Ms. Susan. The care that Ms. Susan needed required a specialist that needed to be seen whenever she was discharged from the ED. I am not advocating for unnecessary medical treatment, but I am acknowledging the importance of recognizing the vulnerability of a patient in this state. Imagine the vulnerability it takes to disclose the most intimate parts of your heart and body to a stranger that you have never seen before and will hopefully never see again. What pride must a person have to deny another person’s suffering. Mocking and denying the suffering of a patient in this vulnerability is a tragedy, and is in a way, a participation in the scourging of the person within. This sort of denial, condemnation, and persecution of not only the patient but the person within is something that every person, regardless if they are in healthcare or not, will have to answer for before the Final Judgement.

I am not advocating that every healthcare professional should become a chaplain, for it doesn’t take a person with a theology degree to recognize the depth of human suffering. There are so many ways in which healthcare professionals can be a conduit of grace to a patient who is suffering so dearly, such as, offering in a charitable way resources for counseling or offering to pray with them.

It is whenever we recognize the vulnerability of this encounter, one between a healthcare professional and patient in this state, that we are able to respect and care for not only the soul of the patient but also the person within.

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