Lessons From a Doctor Visit
“I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
--Matthew 28:20 NRSV
In September 2019, both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer the very same week. They had two very different cancers. My mother had an inoperable brain tumor which killed her two months later, while my father had a cancer with a high survivability rate located on a kidney. A surgery to remove the kidney followed by chemotherapy resulted in him living cancer-free now two years later. There have been many spiritual lessons for me since I received the news that both my parents had cancer. Perhaps the most significant one has come from my father’s oncologist (I’ll call her Dr. B) who has demonstrated a radical kind of presence that I call holy.
I can’t think of a time I felt more vulnerable than when I accompanied my father to meet Dr. B for the first time. My mother had recently died from her cancer when we met to discuss my father’s treatment. I felt all the stuff one feels when one grieves, including anger. The doctors who had treated my mother did their best for her, but they often spoke to her problem and not to her. It had been an exhausting two months of trying to get straight answers about the trade-offs between my mother having a short time of relative peace vs. efforts to give her even a little more time that left her feeling worse than death. I remember bracing myself for another struggle over life or death questions regarding my father when we met Dr. B.
From the moment Dr. B entered the room, her eyes were focused on my father’s eyes. She sat near him leaning forward to take in everything he said both verbally and non-verbally. She listened for information about his health and quality of life with an acute ear geared toward hearing him as a human being in all his complexity. I sat across the room and asked all my fearful and protective questions about the consequences of different approaches to treating his cancer, and she listened to each one answering them directly while validating my fear over losing a second parent. Although I remained guarded, I began to trust her judgment. Over two years later, I now look forward to seeing her, because of the time, care and attention she offers not only to my father’s treatment but also to him as a person. I have rarely been in the presence of someone so present and attentive to another human being. My gratitude to her simply knows no bounds for the attention she gives my father every time we go in for another scan to see if his cancer has returned.
Every time my father and I leave one of his appointments with Dr. B, we always comment on her gift of presence. We have yet to experience her when she seems distracted or focused on anything other than him and his care. As someone in a caring profession, I am envious of her abilities to be present with people she cares for. I find myself too easily distracted when I am trying to be present with people sharing their spiritual struggles with me. Apart from my professional envy however, I am a son who is deeply grateful for the attention she gives my father, just one of who knows how many patients she sees.
I think about Dr. B when I pray to be more present to other people, less lost in my own head, less anxious and less distracted. In moments, when I do feel more present than not with others, I discover that I encounter hurting people wherever I go. Whether it’s talking with a church member or exchanging a few words with a cashier or barista, people everywhere are afraid, vulnerable and desperate for human connection (even more so during COVID-19).
I am grateful for the cancer treatment my father has received from Dr. B, but I am perhaps even more grateful for the gift of presence she has given to him. Feeling he is cared for and seen in all his humanity has been an essential part of his healing. Her presence has also allowed space for me to heal in my grief for my mother. Buddhist monk and spiritual teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence.” This is a lesson I’ve seen in action when I have been with Dr. B.
As a Christian how I have interpreted Dr. B’s gift of presence to my father (and to me) is to see the incarnation of God in Christ as present in her care. The Christ embodied in her has ministered to the Christ embodied in my father (and in me). I can’t help but wonder the difference made any time we can be really present with others. Kilian Noe who works in addiction and recovery therapy describes the spiritual interactions at work in this kind of presence:
“Sometimes we are astonished when we learn that although we did not actually ‘do’ anything for a certain individual, our simply being present or showing up allowed something to shift in his or her inner landscape that made space for deeper healing. Sometimes we discover that in simply being present to another’s pain we experience the Divine in them that awakens the Divine in ourselves.”
No, a few words exchanged with a server, store clerk, a family member or a friend are not the same as a meeting between patient and oncologist, but they may nonetheless be moments with life and death consequences. Each one of us hurts and each one of us can be present for another’s pain. Oftentimes the gift of presence we offer to others maybe exactly what is needed for God to bring healing.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
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We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.