Health Care and the Art of Presence

Psychotherapist Dr. Irvin Yalom is a master storyteller. In his book, Momma and the Meaning of Life he writes about a patient, “(She) described the horrible days of her cancer’s recurrence… She cried when she told me about calling her surgeon, a friend of twenty years, only to be informed by his nurse that there were to be no further appointments because the doctor had nothing more to offer. “What is wrong with doctors? Why don’t they understand the importance of sheer presence?” she asked. “Why can’t they realize that the very moment they have nothing else to offer is the moment they are most needed?”

Reading this passage reminds me of a quote from Sayantani DasGupta, a medical doctor who teaches narrative medicine at Columbia University:

“Long before doctors had anything of interest in their black bags – no MRIs, no lab tests, no all body CAT scans – what they had was the ability to show up, what they had was the ability to listen, and bear witness to someone’s life, death, illness, suffering, and everything else that comes in between.”

Being heard, being understood, being made to feel that we truly matter is one of our fundamental human needs in this world; a need only magnified in times of illness.

Despite medicine’s technological progress, doctors sometimes lack the capacity to recognize the plights of their patients, to extend empathy toward those who suffer, and to join honestly and courageously with patients in their illnesses.

Anatole Broyard, writing in the final months of his life as he was dying from cancer, observed that “not every patient can be saved, but his illness may be eased by the way the doctor responds to him—and in responding to him the doctor may save himself.”

I love this quote as it reminds us of the reciprocal nature of empathy; both the giver and receiver are enriched when empathy is extended.

Can you recall a time when you were met (or not met) with presence when receiving care? Are you a health or social care professional with a story to share about extending empathy when it seemed as if you had “nothing else to offer”? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. 

Related Reading: Rx Narrative: Story as Medicine 


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