Last week I spoke to physicians at the American Medical Directors Association. They are gerontologists, and palliative care specialists who run long-term health care facilities for the aging and chronically ill.
This may be the last place in clinical medicine where doctors still take time to talk to patients. These doctors spend less time prescribing drugs and procedures, and more time with patients and families helping them come together and heal.
I reminded them there is a difference between curing and healing. They know their frail patients will not be cured of their debilities, but they need to be touched, loved, and reminded that they are not alone. This is the sacred work of medicine: to inspire hope and to walk the healing journey together.
Afterwards I was signing books, and a colleague, Dr. Brenda Williams from Sumter, South Carolina, introduced herself. Brenda thanked me for my compassion and the reminder of the loving soul of medicine. “God bless you and your entire family,” she said, “I want to give you something.” She took a bracelet from her wrist and put it on mine. She said it was a prayer bracelet and showed me the small, latched silver box hanging from it. Inside were tiny circles of paper that had the initials of people she loved, those who were sick, and others needing help.
Brenda said she wore the bracelet every day so the people she loved knew she was thinking about them, letting them know they were not alone. Listening to her talk, I was awed by her compassionate presence. Brenda Williams is a doctor and also a healer. In addition to making diagnoses and treating patients (what doctors do), she connects with patients in ways that inspire them to become participants in their health — that’s a healer.
I took the bracelet and said that in Indian country when you gave someone a gift of your soul, it meant that you made a new relative, and I wanted to take her as my sister. We hugged enthusiastically and planned to talk later.
When I got home I incorporated the prayer box into my prayer shawl. The first name I put into it was my new niece, Jamila Williams, Brenda’s oldest daughter who is serving her second tour of duty in Iraq. With the shawl draped over my shoulders, I lit some cedar and holding an eagle feather asked for blessings for family old and new, and a special one for my niece Jamila.