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Providing a Witness to the Experience of Our Colleagues

Posted By Lindsey Lawson, Wednesday, February 8, 2012

It has been so exciting to see the Growing MedFT blog take root over the last several months (Unbearably cheesy? Just go with it.)! Especially of interest to me are the stories of personal connection to Medical Family Therapy that the last several writers have shared... isn’t that what attracts many of us to this work in the first place? Understanding what people have been through and how this connects with who they are today? In her post on staying compassionate and open in a field where our tendency is to want to protect ourselves, Jackie questions whether or not we give enough attention to "recounting... health history and its impact on ourselves and our loved ones.” These illness narratives, as they are called, really matter.

I first began thinking about these issues before I went into the field of therapy, when I was working as a nurse at a small hospital in Oregon. During this time, my mom and brother were hit by a drunk driver in a collision that caused my mom to be permanently crippled in one foot. Our family reorganized completely, with me taking several weeks off of work to be with my mom while she underwent multiple reconstructive surgeries. What a strange feeling that was, to be on the other side of the healthcare system. We, the family, were essentially unnoticed by the medical teams and although our friends offered support (especially during those first few weeks), I remember feeling very much alone.

This is what illness does: It causes us to retreat inside of ourselves, believing that only we can tolerate the ugliness of our diseases and the darkness of our hopelessness. In her article "Witnessing, Wonder, and Hope” Kathy Weingarten (2000) writes of her life post-chemotherapy, "My life was bleak and lonely because I lived in silence, certain that no one could bear to hear the feelings and thoughts I had following my year of treatment; unwilling to find out if I was right; certain that I needed to protect people from my experience; and failing in those few times I tried to put into words the chaos of my emotions and the terror that lived in my flesh.” Lindsey Lawson
"Our ability to be witnesses to these experiences, to sit with physicians and nurses in their moments of pain, and to acknowledge what they have lost generates hope: the greatest gift that we can give."

Somehow we’ve come to see healthcare providers as being immune to these experiences. They are seen as the unaffected givers of care; not out of choice, but out of necessity. In our medical simulation lab at Loma Linda University, we have piloted a reflecting team approach to providing feedback to residents who work at creating compassionate ways of giving bad news to patients’ families. It has not been unusual to see the doctors and nurses fight back tears. Memories of their own losses surface and they reflect back on these as they review their reactions to the actors whose "family member” is dying. They report that no one has ever really taken notice or appreciated the care with which they try to face the implications of this all to frequent occurrence.

What is our job as Medical Family Therapists in all of this? To begin, we must start to address the intersection of healthcare professionals’ own experiences with illness and the burden of providing constant care to others. One of the physicians I work with says, "I just wish people would recognize that this isn’t easy... I go home some days and can hardly face coming back. No one seems to know that emotionally, this work is really difficult.” Addressing what is often un-recognized must be more than a passing thought for us; it is our responsibility. Our ability to be witnesses to these experiences, to sit with physicians and nurses in their moments of pain, and to acknowledge what they have lost generates hope: the greatest gift that we can give.

Lindsey Lawson is a second-year PhD MFT student at Loma Linda University and works at the Loma Linda Medical Center as a Medical Family Therapist. She has spent the last year working on a qualitative, grounded theory study in which she is interviewing nurses and nursing students about their personal experiences with illness and the way that these experiences impact their views of family-focused healthcare and wellness.

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