The little black doctor’s bag

Darold Treffert MD
Dr. Treffert's doctor bag

When I began my practice eons ago doctors, including me, each had our little black doctor’s bag. When making rounds we would bring it into the room with the tools for physical examination. There was a stethoscope to listen to the heart; an ophthalmoscope to examine the eyes; a tuning fork for testing hearing; a reflex hammer; a blood pressure cuff and some vials of spices to test smell. 

There were also a few medications for certain emergencies and maybe even some bandages.

These days doctors tend to drape the stethoscope around their necks and the exam rooms have all the other equipment. No more black doctor bags. In fact many doctors don’t even wear a white coat any more.

But while the doctors’ bags have generally disappeared over that same period of time since I began practice, some real medical miracles have occurred. The discovery of penicillin and the antibiotics that followed. The Salk vaccine to essentially eradicate polio. Seen any “iron lungs” lately? The discovery of antipsychotics and antidepressants.  Kidney and heart transplants. That list goes on. The equipment these days for diagnosis and modalities for treatment are extraordinary.

But some elements so helpful to the healing process were never in that little black bag. Yet, to me, they are evident in every day practice, whatever the specialty. I have seen them at work in so many cases. They are so simple, yet so profound. They cost nothing but can be plentiful. They do need to be in every doctor’s repertoire, even if not in that little black bag.

TIME

In my emergency room and other specialty rotations in internship and residency I have seen some real tragedies. A little boy killed on his paper route; a stillborn after what seemed like a normal pregnancy; a drowning of a little girl at a birthday party. When presenting these dreaded deaths to families, I wondered how things could ever seem normal for them again. But thankfully time is a pretty good therapist and somehow they heal, over time, from even those events.

While it sounds patronizing at the time one says it to survivors, reassuring them that ‘tincture of time’ can help, turns out to be true.

So overall time is a kind healing force.

LOVE

So many parents write to me with an “I’ve got a son or daughter who….” inquiry looking for some advice for dealing with the special skills, and some delays, their child is showing. Their fears about autism or failure to talk permeate the e mails. But shining through also is their love, and their pride, for that child. They may have already sought various therapies and are working with the child daily.  I am always happy to reassure them that love is a good therapist too. And it is, not just for the disorders I deal with, but with diseases and disorders in general. I encourage families to press on with their involvement however they structure it because sometimes Mom and Dad ‘do know best’ and what works and what doesn’t. They become a critical part of the treatment team whatever the malady.

So overall love is a good therapist.

FAITH

Faith and hope are inseparable; faith springs hope. While hope is not always sufficient, it can be a potent part of the healing process whatever the malady. Time can be measured and love can be witnessed. It is harder to quantify ‘faith’ or demonstrate for sure the power of prayer. But I know few clinicians who have not, along the way, seen some ‘miracle’ of healing where the patient and family are grateful for a prayerful healing and wonderful, unexpected outcome.

So while I don’t have double blind, statistical data to prove it, in my experience faith can be an integral, potent healing force.

Like most doctors I don’t carry around my little black bag anymore. It gathers dust in my closet. The batteries in the ophthalmoscopes have expired long ago, the rubber tubes on the stethoscope are brittle and the sphygmomanometer leaks.

But I do carry with me the conviction that time, love and faith are potent forces that can be an important elements in the healing process whatever the malady. In keeping with that belief I would hope that those forces would be recognized, respected, supported and even encouraged by every health care practitioner, little black bag or not.

Forget the little black doctor bag. But never forget, or underestimate, the power of time, love and faith in the healing process.

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