Ettie Newlands

There’s an article in this month’s “Brain & Life” magazine by a physician who got sick.

It wasn’t COVID, it was Guillain-Barre syndrome.

It could have been COVID, it could have been anything, because the specific sickness wasn’t the issue.

The issue was that for the first time, she identified with her patients and felt what they felt.

She had frightening tests. She was poked and prodded and given shots and horrible-tasting meds.

Her body was either numb or it was tingling, her heart was racing and she was, she said, disturbingly fatigued.

ER doctors whispered to each other and she worried she was even sicker than she thought.

Why were they whispering about her case? Especially when she is, after all, a physician?

After her diagnosis and treatment, she felt betrayed by her own body, seasick in her bed. She couldn’t sleep well. Her insides burned because of a dye used during tests.

She was scared.

When she left the hospital, she was even more scared. How would she manage her symptoms and her meds without the constant intervention of the medical folks?

Having experienced for the first time what her patients feel — the degrees of panic that start as concern and escalate to terror — she said, “Now I want to nurture my patients as the human beings they are beneath the diagnosis, making sure they know I’m there for them whenever they need me.”

Her experience confirmed to me that we don’t really know anything until we’ve experienced it.

We think we understand how a person feels when they’ve lost their spouse, as we stand with our own partners, comforting them.

We try to “be there” for people who’ve learned they’re very sick even as we thank God for our own good health.

We hold our children more tightly as we listen to a mother describe her excruciating loss.

Truth is, we don’t understand. We sympathize. We care. We’d fix it if we could. We overflow with love.

But we don’t empathize. We can’t, not until we’ve felt what they feel and lived through what they’ve lived through.

I’ve grieved for the loss of my parents and siblings and more friends than I have left.

But seeing my dear friend experience the loss of her husband of 30 years tells me I know very little about grief.

Estranged from a child I dearly love, I still cannot begin to know the pain of a parent burying a son or a daughter.

I’ve learned — and so has the doctor suffering with Guillain-Barre syndrome — not to say, “I understand” because I don’t.

I only say “I care,” because I do.

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(1) comment

Ned Black

Thanks, Ettie, for your wonderful writings! If we ever get through this pandemic, let's have lunch to catch-up! Ned

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