An unknown author wrote: “Unless we hear each other singing and crying, unless we can comfort each other’s failures and cheer each other’s victories, we are missing out on the best that life has to offer. The only real action takes place on the bridge between people.”
I believe in the transformational power of human relationships. I am a cancer doctor and palliative care specialist. Most of my patients die within days to a few years after I meet them. I believe I was put on this earth to do this work, and I find satisfaction in helping people who many feel cannot be helped. What I have learned in my life and my work is that the most potent tool that a health care provider has is their spirit, and the best way to apply that tool is in the context of a caring relationship.
I come from a family that is half Yankee and half Dixie. My parents’ struggles were made livable and their lives bountiful by the merging of their values and hopes into a loving, topsy-turvey, enigmatic partnership. This was on the job training for me in St. Louis, Missouri. We would all get in the “wagon” and head to Alabama or South Dakota for summer vacation and see the “other culture” in alternate years along with wonderful outdoor experiences, mainly chasing trout up north, bass down south. In either place, I witnessed loving relationships along with broken relationships, amidst hard lives and oddball family histories. At home I saw a devoted relationship between my Southern Belle homemaker/bridge wizard mother and Homesteader Yankee engineer father which overcame potent differences and some incredible life challenges. This example set by my parents imparted the values of devotion, kindness, courtesy, respect, forgiveness, and humor to me. As I proceeded through my life education as an adolescent and young man, I was primed to value my relationships. Not just girlfriends in 6th grade and fishing buddies in junior high, but people of all ages, relations, and generations. Besides books and music and fishing, my main sustenance was people — being with them, talking with them, helping them. As a budding scientist, I could see that the science of people was going to interest me much more that the science of molecules, cells, minerals, or the cosmos. College, medical training, and my early years in academic medicine were an ongoing preparation of my core being toward my calling of fostering therapeutic relationships when they are the best medicine for a person living precious days.
Why does this matter so much to me? I believe that connections between people, more so that connections between a person and things, are a reflection of the connection between humanity and the transcendent. Whatever we leave here when we are gone, the biggest imprint is the positive influence we had on others. We are at once and irrevocably changed by the smallest meaningful interaction with another, whether in an elevator, on a stream or in a waiting room. More in-depth encounters and relationships only have a more potent influence. A short story might help stress the point. Ten years ago, I cared for a young man, Toby. I only knew him for 6 months. He had lymphoma that had come back after initial successful treatment. He decided to forgo further treatment. This is not what I recommended or wanted. He had a shot at a cure with an autologous bone marrow transplant. But his choice was reasonable, based on his values and goals. I supported his decision, begrudgingly at first. We talked on the phone, and I got him plugged in with his local hospice agency in rural southern Missouri. It was mutual love at first sight; this young, brave man accepting his fate, wanting help to wring out all the good his short life could offer, and this local small band of hospice staff wanting to make that happen. Where did our relationship come in? He asked me to come down and fish with him. He drove the gravel river bottom road in his old truck to get to our spot, and we waded out into the cool flowing water of this Ozark stream, one of us holding his oxygen tank while the other fished. We talked and caught up, caught a few lovely fish, and he talked about living and dying, how being here with his Mom meant so much to him.
He changed me forever to my eternal benefit, he changed that hospice and that town forever and gave them experience, knowledge and memories that can never die, and I hope I changed him a little by helping him and talking to him. His mom has stayed in touch with me over the years, like he isn’t really totally gone. Because the relationships live on and continue to transform. People need people to live, grow, and flourish. The connection between people is a stunning and awesome power. It is where God lives and breathes. This is what I believe in the most.
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