Note to Readers: In this post, Brooklyn-based psychologist and writer Dr. Mel Waldman responds to writer Sandy Prisant's on-going series, "The Journey We Take Alone," part seven of which appeared here on May 31st.
Dear Sandy Prisant:
The doctors say “It’s all normal.” What do these words mean? My dictionary states that normal means “conforming with or constituting an accepted standard, model, or pattern; especially corresponding to the median or average of a large group in type, appearance, achievement, function, development, etc.; natural; standard; regular.”
Well, suffering is normal for human beings. Chronic pain is normal for senior citizens. Violence is normal for the human race. And lack of empathy is normal for medical doctors. Medical school doesn’t teach compassion and empathy. In graduate school, we psychologists explored the idea of teaching MDs how to relate and communicate with their patients. Some primary care physicians relate well to their patients. Most do not, in my opinion. And surgeons have even more difficulty communicating with their patients and relating to them emotionally.
Often, they have a highly developed sense of control and do not wish to express theiremotions or understand the emotional chaos the patient experiences. One surgeon told me: “I don’t need to be compassionate. I need to perform well.” A lot of things are normal but quite painful. The depression that may accompany life-threatening and chronic illnesses is normal but often devastating. Death is normal and inevitable for human beings. Yet most of us deny it, repress it, and keep our heads buried in the sand so we don’t have to face it. Sandy, you and your wife are experiencing a lot of emotional pain.
Once again, you trudge along a life-threatening landscape marked with uncertainty and despair. The doctors seem motivated to keep you alive and do whatever is necessary except revealing any deep emotions. Yes, the “doctors remain stone-faced” because they can’t deal with genuine feelings. That’s their problem. But remember, they’re damned good surgeons and you need the best.
Now, it’s time to tell you about Sam, my late brother-in-law and my sister Gloria. As a result of surgery on a pinched nerve gone awry, Sam’s kidneys were destroyed. Sam was a lawyer but he never mentioned suing the doctors who destroyed his kidneys. He talked about going on dialysis and the adjustments he and my sister had to make. As I recall, he was on dialysis for more than a decade. I can’t recall the exact number of years. Sam was strong emotionally and appeared stoic. He suffered heart failure and kidney failure and sometimes, even this tough man became depressed. His body was a wasteland of horrific bruises, grotesque discolorations and sometimes, I looked at him and I saw a Holocaust victim/survivor. He hadn’t been in the death camps. But he was emaciated and shriveled up and years of kidney dialysis had taken its toll. Yet my sister didn’t see the ugly marks or a crippled leper. She saw the handsome and beautiful man she fell madly in love with and married. When love is deep and real, it sees only beauty. At his worst, Sam remained the perfect man, Gloria’s beloved husband. Sam died a year after 9/11. He fought a great fight and had numerous surgeries. He had a strong will to live and powerful reasons to stay alive. In the end, his final operation was successful. But there were complications and he passed away. Yet love kept him going for many years.
Love’s a beautiful reason for living. Yes, Sandy, love’s a magnificent reason for living. And I believe you’re blessed with a cornucopia of love. You’re going through Hell and that’s the truth. But Heaven’s just a few feet away. Just look into your wife’s eyes.