"Through loving kindness our outlook on life fundamentally changes and we ourselves become a source of joy and inspiration to others." – Tulku Thondup
A Patient, A Nurse, A Legacy
It was the worst of times when I arrived in Brussels during a dismal mid-February winter. While Belgium is not noted for its good climate in the best of times, I had the added misery of a raging cold, enervating fever and difficulty breathing. After a physician diagnosed "typical pneumonia," I was bundled off to a gloomy hospital. All the nurses were nuns who spoke no English. My French is different from Belgian French, especially when dealing with numbers (and thermometers). After a flurry of heavily robed sisters, considering arm waving and pad and pencil, the conversion of their 40.55 degrees Celsius to my 105 degrees Fahrenheit had me wondering if I'd leave there alive.
Neverheless, with chills and high temperature in that alien place-gentleness and compassion transcended language and preconceivedgments. The Edith Cavell Hospital, where I was cared for and made well by angels, was the embodiment of the unmitigated healing power of kindness.
Largely forgotten today, Edith Cavell was a British nurse in World War I whose acts of kindness were not so random. In German-occupied Belgium she did not discriminate; she helped save the lives of hundreds of Belgian, British and German soldiers. But for assisting the escape of allied prisoners she was issued as a spy, and executed by a German firing squad. Her final words appear on her statue in St. Louis. Martin's Place, near Trafalgar Square in London: "Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone."
When Compassion Transcends Language and Technology
Nurse Edith Cavell was the antithesis of hatred and bitterness. As the Stanford University study suggests, when patients are treated with kindness, "when there is an effort made to know them, empathize, communicate, listen to and respond to their needs-it can lead to faster healing of wounds, reduced pain, reduced anxiety, reduced blood pressure, shorter hospital stays, "and wonder of wonders-lower costs. In my case the so-called language barrier made no difference. The unspoken language of compassion heals all things.
Whenever I opened my eyes in the night, a comfortable voice and gentle touch materialized. Whatever I needed, whenever I needed it, the Belgian sisters of Edith Cavell Hospital were there for me. These nurses understand wellness through kindness as an indispensable component to the healing process. Selfless caring was repeated many times in my life-with male nurses in a Saigon ward and me the only civilian; in an East African emergency room after a car crash, a Moroccan hospital operating room, in the private homes of friends who helped me recuperate. A close friend owned an African Gray parrot he called Herman. With an outrageous vocabulary, Herman repeated, "get the hell up, get the hell up," until I did, just to shut him up. Healthy doses of humor, especially from angels with wings, are a heavenly bonus.
The Need For More Angels in America
Health care in America focuses mainly on how to cut costs without restricting people's access or reducing the quality of their care. But kindness should not be viewed as a warm and fuzzy postscript that follows the "real" medicine.
To avoid the fisheye angle of a hand-held selfie we now have selfie sticks, the latest gadget in digital narcissism-the need to be connected to everything, while unable to consciously connect to anything. Some surgeons use selfie sticks in the operating room to record their latest procedures. Not to begrudge Doctor Gadget some fun and vanity, but a kinder work environment for doctors and nurses also helps them feel more involved and less exhausted, critical to medical staff who often work long hours in high-pressure jobs.
In the Presence of Kindness Miracles Happen
I'm grateful for the human capacity for compassion that has followed me all of my life. From an angel stepmother, and through my peripatetic global career to right now; there has always been an Edith Cavell just for me, which is probably why I'm still here. By remembering those who have helped us in our lives, the gratitude we feel expands our capacity to love-a true miracle. While American medicine is a scientific marvel, it's time we emphasize wellness through kindness. They are not mutually exclusive.
From NY TIMES David Brooks review of the movie INTERSTELLAR "… in the era of quantum entanglement and relativity … webs of loving and meaningful relationship relationships can do amazing good."