A doctor’s well-intentioned efforts to empathise with his patients brings unexpected consequences.
I could, quite easily, blame Hermann Hesse for my mistake. Or India. Or, for that matter, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. You see those venerable people, and that threshing, multitudinous place, sowed my first seeds of confusion about what it means to care.
A quarter of a century ago I journeyed to a Buddhist retreat in the Indian hilltop town of Dharamsala. Armed with a copy of Hesse’s Siddhartha, I was seeking enlightenment – even the garden variety would do. In the still mountain air and to the flutter of prayer flags, I learnt that my goal, bodhicitta – literally, feeling another’s pain through meditation – would require compassion.
I returned to Melbourne with a Tibetan begging bowl, posters of His Holiness, and a resolve to bring real empathy to my work as a hospital emergency doctor. It wasn’t long before my will was tested in the resuscitation room. The ambulance had delivered a man in his 50s who looked much older, face tinged navy, skin fragile as paper and one leg missing below the knee. His blood pressure plunged and our team converged around him with a tense, wordless efficiency.
Amid the drama, I was mindful of my additional duty. And so I reached into the wellspring of humanity I had cultivated in India and dragged from it an avatar of myself, desperate to channel the man’s pain; to feel what it was to be him. We pulled him back from the brink and I went home with the sense of a new and richer dimension to my chosen profession. But when I trudged back in for the morning shift, the news wasn’t good. The man’s blood tests were not normal. One, which I failed to check the evening before, had shown he had suffered a heart attack.
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