27 November 2012

French Revolution

It was something I said that broke the rank and file of emotion. Something about reliability. Her head bowed over her breakfast bowl of oatmeal and berries. There was a pause, and then... tears. I sucked in my breath. Sunlight, missing for the past two days, streamed in the hotel restaurant's dining room. I snatched my napkin from off my lap and deposited it on my empty plate, rose and turned to unleash my purse strap from the back of my chair, lifting it over my head and down to rest on one shoulder, its weight at my hip, weapon-like. We marched single-file and tight-lipped past the black-clad waiters and waitresses who smiled as a reflex.

She cried. She cried the tears that are squeezed from the inner-most chambers of the heart. Her personal war story was one of many battles—diagnosis and remission, diagnosis and remission, diagnosis and remission, with life laying siege each time in between. Though her arena differed from our own, the language of the campaign was so much the same. Fear. Loss. Trust. Loss. Hope. Loss. Fatigue. Loss.

With survival comes a lamentation for the life that was lost. There lies such great grief in the hearts that lead our campaign of change. We patients, we involuntary band of brothers, were enlisted by this army as cannon fodder. But we were not taken down. Wounded yet emboldened by experience, we rose to build our own armies, wiped tears from our blood- and grease-covered faces, pounded our fists against our chests and cried out, "Action conquers fear." It is only from being torn apart that we are given the means to heal.

Each fortress of healthcare's status quo shows chinks in the wall through which we speak, at first a whisper, and then a yell—patients included, patient-centered, empowered, engaged, enabled. We scale walls. We break open doors. We recruit those inside. And thus our army grows.

We fight not to destroy but to reconstruct. My own weapons are words. I wield stories to cleave the heart in two and the head apart from its routine course of judgment. Each patient who tells his or story thus has chosen to take up his or her arms and fight. Like me. Like she. Like we.

22 November 2012

Just Like Me

The radio announcer's voice, mellow and moderated, speaks of a study Stanford researchers are conducting regarding post traumatic stress disorder and coping mechanisms. A group of patients, veterans young and old, of wars long-past and current, have gathered in Menlo Park, California where they focus in on meditation expert Leah Weiss's directions, issued in a voice equally mellow and moderated, to slowly take three deep breaths—in through the nose, out through the mouth.

Weiss has been leading these guided meditations for more than a year now. She directs the men to think of a person they care about, a family member or a friend, and to bring that person close to them. "Allow yourself to feel the presence of this person," she says. This alone is an exercise in will. These soldiers, though no longer in combat, still bear the marks of their training—the heightened sense of alert that any person at any time may represent a threat. Thus, in the civilian world, making friendships and holding intimate relationships has become difficult. There is a self-imposed distance. Through meditation, the soldiers challenge themselves to close that gap. As they each visualize their chosen family member or friend, Weiss intones the soldiers' meditation mantra, "That person is just like me." Whomever that person may be, Weiss says, "Consider that, just like me, this person's had ups and downs in his or her life. Just like me, this person's had goals and dreams."

"Just like me." It's a phrase that we typically reserve for a select few. As a society, we like labels. We are drawn to parse data, divide friends from foes, black from white, rich from poor, educated to uneducated, increment by increment separating ourselves from others. Only when we have delineated the population, chosen who we feel to mirror our circumstances, experiences, interests and values, do we finally issue with great aplomb the discerning decree, "That person is just like me." But these veteran soldiers are learning how to think otherwise and bring empathy and compassion back to their sense of humanity. "The idea, of you saying, 'just like me,' that does a lot for me in a sense because I know how I'd like to be treated or how I want to feel," says one of the Vietnam vets.

His observation echoes The Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It seems so simple. Yet time and again we forget, or worse, chose to do otherwise. It must not take the suffering of a trauma and the retraining of our subconscious to see that people of all kinds are "just like me" and that we are just (only) people. We will receive only what we are willing to give.