So, working in health makes you harden and empty your heart.
Eventually, behind the curtain, there will be someone who shares a name with someone you love. Or they’ll have been hurt doing something thing you were lucky with. Or they’ll be losing a dream you had long ago.
Patients remind you of the immortality and vulnerability of yourself.
The hardest part is walking from the ward into the room. To enter their space without bringing too much of yourself behind the curtain. Treat the person – not the diagnosis – we’re warned in the handover. It’s an untold warning to harden and empty your heart.
It’s only heard because everyone sighs just the same.
Yesterday, I walked behind the curtain to a young woman. With 2 small ones at her side, she had legs full of steel because of the masses in her breasts. Her face was pale but her voice was strong. It took all my strength to leave myself outside her room. I wanted to hold her, but I didn’t. That’s not what I’m there for. Not with her small ones at her bedside – willing her to get better with their 7 year old eyes. Or her mother at the window, wishing it was her. She shared the name of a school friend of mine. She spoke of lucky things she’d done. She didn’t search for reason and blame.
I knew she watched her own dreams slipping away quietly each day.
I excused myself twice during our session. Both times it was to compose myself and to bite back my tears. Because if she wouldn’t cry, how could I? I’m nothing but an extra on this journey of hers. We both went about our respective roles – her as my patient, me as her therapist – she followed my lead, moved through her pain, we left her space behind her curtain, moved into the bathroom and closed the door.
Away from her loved ones, for whom she had to be so brave, she breathed:
“It really hurts.”
Seeing her drop her armour, my hard, empty heart melted. I couldn’t promise her everything would be OK, but I could look deep into her eyes, beyond her unanswered questions and her unspoken fears. I could hold her hand firm.
And stay silent.
Think lateral side openers, abdominal twists and antar mouna.
The hardest part of watching someone suffer, is watching it. Without getting our own stuff involved or trying to play out our ego in the picture. To put our own agenda on the bedside and say we know how someone feels is the easy bit. The hard part is to accept what is. To know with someone who is staring at their own mortality that we draw sorrow and happiness from the same well. Or that pleasure is simply the mask that covers pain. That there are questions that have no answers and fears that remain unspoken.
And that the mirror of compassion held between two people asks nothing of us except to keep going.
With our hard, empty hearts open.
I helped the young woman with the brave smile back behind her curtain and back into bed. I then helped her 7 year old daughter climb up and have a ride. As I said goodbye, I held her warm hand again.
As I filled her with the silent fire in my eyes, she filled my hard, empty heart with hers.