Vulnerability

I originally wrote this piece on Sept. 8, 2011, the day after I arrived in Prague.  I was sick, confined to my two-star hotel room, but somehow eager-beaver-ish to get something up on the blog I’d intended to imminently create.  Oh well – better late than never.

The first thing I did yesterday when I landed in Prague’s Ruzyne International Airport yesterday was buy an International Herald Tribune, the global edition of the New York Times.  Those of you who know me well have observed at least a sliver of anti-globalization rhetoric over the years; that said, I do like to indulge in Made in USA once in a while when I’m traveling.  Besides the occasional Big Mac, the IHT is my favorite of that country’s international offerings.

There are a number of reasons I like the IHT.  It’s generally centre-left perspective dictates that it publishes pieces that are important to me; I also happen to think a number of New York Times columnists are among the most important social and political critics currently putting pen to paper.  Nick Kristof, for example, has an uncanny knack for writing objective, polemically inspiring pieces while not disguising his personal emotional reaction to the issue at hand.   Whether he’s commenting on child labour or famine in northeast Africa, he doesn’t lose touch with the human factor.

Unsurprisingly, then, I came across a from-the-heart article in the midst of the more typical political and economic commentary on the editorial page of yesterday’s edition.  You can read it here, and I’d highly recommend it.  The title, “When Doctors Become Patients,” sums it up well: the author, a doctor, is describing the experience of dealing with a serious medical condition from the other side of the desk.

What strikes me the most about Eric’s account is his description of how humbling this experience was.  Although he doesn’t actually use that word, he admits to having had an “intellectual” understanding of the cancer treatment going in.  It quickly became apparent to him that no amount of medical training could have prepared him mentally for what the upcoming weeks had in store.  Here’s Eric on how rapidly his world was contracting:

For my doctors, it was all about the numbers, the staging of my cancer, my loss of weight and strength. For me, too, it was about the numbers: the six feedings I pushed through the syringe into the plastic tube in my stomach every day; the number of steps I could take by myself; how many hours I had to wait before I could grind up the pill that allowed me to slip into unconsciousness.

But it was also about more: my world progressively shrinking to a small, sterile, asteroidal universe between the interminable nausea and the chemobrain that left my head both empty and feverish, between survival and death.

He goes on to describe a morbid impulse to end it all, which only his wife succeeded in talking him out of in the end.  He poignantly observes that knowing what the treatment is like has not prepared him in any way to undergo it again – in other words, it’s hardly increased his strength or fortitude.  Any positives that emerged out of the experience, according to Eric, are related to his newfound “recognition of vulnerability as well as expertise” that has subsequently made him a better physician.

To me, this narrative is a striking account of vulnerability.  Doctors are among the most intellectually renowned members of society; most of us can’t imagine corralling the amount of information they’re in possession of, much less being burdened by the kind of seminal decisions that they make every day.  Eric, a physician, was brought to his knees by an ailment that he – often successfully – committed his mind, time, and life to saving others from.  He was brought to the point of wanting to surrender to it, and it took the intervention of another mortal being to save him from himself.

I’ve never undergone treatment for cancer, or any other serious aliment  *knock knock*.  But I do know that my preconceptions of my strengths and powers are constantly being proven wrong.  This trip has already offered me a range of perspectives that I wasn’t previously wasn’t in possession of: lenses on political issues, historical conflicts, etc.  No less importantly, it has offered me a new perspective on how I rely on others: on their encouragement, and on their presence.  An individual I am; an island, I’m not.  As much as books, intellectual curiosity, and creative ambition occupy me in times of solitude, I’m not as immune as I thought I was to missing people that I care about.

How do I learn to turn that vulnerability into something wholesome that benefits the world around me?  Although Eric doesn’t go into detail as to how it’s enriched him, I presume it’s fostered a type of empathy in him that goes far beyond typical bedside manner.  Maybe I’ll find that it counters my pride; that it breaches the walls that friends have told me I seem to maintain.  Maybe it will turn me into a stronger leader.  Only time – and train journeys – will tell.

Tom
Prague, Czech Republic

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