Above the oldest mental hospital in the world, in France, is the inscription: “To cure sometimes; to help often; to comfort always.”
There are some “cures” of various diseases in each of the medical specialties and how welcome those are. And we keep searching for cures as we should. But most of the time, whatever the specialty or organ system, we simply “help.” How welcome, what a relief, and sometimes how dramatic that can be.
But the third ingredient - comfort, empathy, support - is an essential part of good bedside manner whether standing at the bedside is the doctor, nurse, aide, parent, spouse, child or friend. Lost sometimes in array of machines, gauges, tubes and urgency of the ICU is the remedy that simply being there, listening and perhaps holding hands can provide.
The same is true of more chronic, less dramatic conditions throughout the specialties. The role of the healer extends beyond the pills or procedures he or she might prescribe, helpful as they can be. After a long time caring for one of my patients, he paid me a high compliment by saying “you helped me as much as your pills did.”
I would add two other ingredients to the helping and healing motto - faith and hope. They are intricately tied together actually. I never tell my patient there is no hope because I have seen some real surprises along the way. So many of the parents of some of my most extraordinary savants were told to lower expectations and maybe even institutionalize their child because there was no hope. And how many times some patients were told to go home and get their affairs in order with only months to live, telling me their story 20 years later.
Exceptions? Yes. But medical miracles do happen and faith and hope, along with cures, helping and comforting are principle players in the complexity of our existence and practice. We simply always need to include and respect all of them.