As a physician, few of us have time to be philosophical. We are usually too busy, trying to help our patients get healthy, to ruminate about the sheer magnitude of all of our interventions.
The standard interview question for medical school….Why did you choose to become a doctor? The “acceptable” answer that will get you in: “Because I realize that the most important thing in our lives is our health!”
Experience has made me change my mind about my canned answer.
Health is no recipe for happiness. Health does not translate into happiness. Health does not become happiness. Health does not equate happiness. Health does not create happiness.
I was in the hospital on a Saturday night. It was 7:30 pm. I had patients in two rooms next to each other. In one room was a 65-year-old man who was admitted to the hospital with a bad skin infection that resolved with a short course of intravenous antibiotics. In the other room was a 43-year old woman who was paralyzed from the waist down and was admitted for an infected non-healing ulcer.
The 65 year-old man was alone. He was a multi-millionaire who had served as the CEO of a large fortune 500 company. No family. No friends. No colleagues. He quietly flipped the channels on his television. He was surrounded by IV lines, the recurrent beeps from the monitors, the flickering of computer screens, and the occasional scuttle of a nurse coming in and out of the room. No one visited him. He was never married and had no children. His only friend was his dog who had to be put to sleep 6 months prior. He had his health back, but his face was sullen and his affect depressed. He shared with me the feelings of hopelessness and invisibility that he felt. He shared with me the anger and regret he felt that he had not cultivated a family and had not made the effort to connect with friends. He was an atheist and felt it was outrageous to even conceive of a spiritual being who loved him. He was physically well now and ready to be discharged with impeccable health. Yet, he felt wretched despite his great health. He felt empty. There was not one familiar voice or face to cheer him on in his recovery. He had no friends or family to pick him up from the hospital. He had no one anxiously awaiting his return home in full health.
My 43 year-old paralyzed patient in the hospital room next door was smiling and laughing. She had 15 family members in the room with her. They had brought her food from an outside deli with her favorite sweet potato fries and matzah ball soup so she wouldn’t have to eat the hospital food. The woman had two kids who made her get well cards. Her nieces and nephews had posted finger painting portraits of her on the walls and were sharing their homemade chocolate brownies with her. There were three flower arrangements, one box of Sees chocolates, and a new set of her favorite Soduko puzzles wrapped with decorative ribbons. The patient’s husband started telling everyone jokes. My patient would likely never be able to walk. She had an ulcer that hadn’t healed in over a month. The sheer joy on her face reflected the immense love she was experiencing from her family and friends. Her physical ailments were not healed. However, any destructive anger about her health problems was consistently defeated by the appreciation for her life she felt from others. Feeling loved for her was far more potent than any antibiotic or surgery in making her joyful.
The feeling of being genuinely and deeply loved penetrates far deeper than our physical health. As a physician, it is extremely hard to admit that the most important thing for all of us is not our health. Please don’t misunderstand: Health is profoundly influential in our lives, and good health can make it much easier to be happy.
However, far more important than the achievement of health, is that we–patients and caregivers–feel genuinely and deeply loved.
Feeling loved allows us to rise above the wounds that can never be healed… It is the feeling that makes our lives worth living….The feeling that makes us forget about our pain….The feeling that motivates us to wake up in the morning….The feeling that propels us to want to do what we love to do….The feeling that we get when our hospital bed is surrounded by those who cherish us. We need our cheerleaders. We need our support. We need beings—physical or spiritual—who replace our thoughts about our physical limitations with the omnipotence of love. Far more important than our health is the feeling of bliss we experience when we believe that G-d loves us fully, deeply, and unconditionally.
Not having good health can be wretched, painful, and difficult to bear.
But living without feeling loved can be harder than death.
Dr. Devin James