The Healer’s Art

The surgeon strode confidently into the operating room…

This is how my surgeon suggests I begin my blog post, when I tell him – during surgery! – that I shall write of my experience. Truthfully, though, it is his warmth and ability to comfort that most impresses me, which seems to me the very model qualities of a healer. And this is what I shall write about – oh, do rest assured I shall spare you the details of cutting and suturing.

I am at VGH/UBC eye care surgical clinic to have a lower lid elevation, a procedure performed with local anaesthetic, and sedatives, if requested. The surgery is required because of what is called thyroid orbitopathy, an autoimmune disease of inflammation and enlargement of the muscles and tissues surrounding the eye. The disease is associated with hyperthyroidism, although some people, like myself, have no abnormalities of the thyroid.  Its cause remains unclear, but it can be disfiguring, and severe cases may compress the optic nerve, leading to sight loss. Even in its relatively mild manifestation, the eyes are uncomfortable, and retraction of the lids causes a stare which has many psychological effects in interactions with others. There is no cure for the disease, though various remedies to help with symptoms. So I’ve skipped over this bit about as quickly as I can, the point of which is to say this is oculoplastic surgery, certainly not cosmetic.

I am here for the second time at the clinic, having some years previously undergone a mullerectomy, a procedure to lower the upper eyelids. It was a good experience, but it was really my experiences after the surgery that were so very enlightening. Almost immediately I noticed a profound difference in the way other people related to me; people were more relaxed. The stare associated with the disease is at best interpreted as intensity, and at worst, as anger – and the (relatively) small changes in the appearance of my eyes apparently alleviated these impressions. Family and close friends have familiarity on their side in interpreting mood and speech, but body language is a large component of communication, and the eyes a large component of body language. The subtle and intricate play of these muscles is indeed, how we invite others into our hearts and minds, and perhaps truly are the windows of the soul.

I am here, then, because I have seen the transformation that can be effected, aside from the fact that I am in discomfort. And I am here because this is a place of healers, and the healing art. Everyone, from receptionist to nurses to doctors , introduces themselves, and speaks with a care for privacy and with evident compassion. It is clean, and quiet – though soft music plays in the operating room. The anaesthesiologist explains that the effect of the sedative is similar to two glasses of red wine, and I heartily endorse this. The surgeon explains – fortunately, with not too much detail – each various step he takes in the procedure. I tell him his voice is very soothing. The surgeon also guides and converses with another surgeon who is there to learn the art and technique – for this is a teaching clinic. I confess this is somewhat disconcerting, though her gentle touch on my arm is welcome. Everyone moves about in a sure, quiet way, and at the point where I am somewhat convinced I am going to scream – not in pain, for there is none, but my muscles are being pulled about a bit – the surgeon tells me he is finishing up. When the surgery is finished, a nurse helps me out of the operating room chair and into the recovery room, stopping along the way to show me my new eyes. Squeamishly, I avert my eyes – I am such a girl – as I catch sight of a drop of blood.

And so, my imaginary friend asks, what is the point of this foray into the intensely personal, this disquisition on what many of us would rather not hear about, thank you very much? Just this, my friend: it is a marvelous and wonderful privilege to be in the company of health care professionals who clearly enjoy what they do, who work to provide patient-centred care, and who strive to become better at what they do. Obviously, no one wants to have surgery, and this is assuredly not enjoyable, but to enter into this place is to enter into the presence of healers, and that is a gift. It is a gift because this place is much different than other places I have had surgery, although this is a subjective view. That is precisely the point: the patient’s subjective view has much to do with the process of healing. And it is a gift, because in a world that often values the tawdry and superficial, here is a statement that perhaps real and enduring values shall prevail. It is also a political statement, in a deep and profound way.

Health care does not need more surgeons who stride confidently into the operating room, but rather, I believe that health care needs more people who go quietly and compassionately about their work with great love. My warmest thanks to Dr. Peter Dolman, and each and every one of the staff at VGH/UBC surgical daycare, my thanks and much love.  You have shown me, and many others, what the healer’s art should be. How fortunate I am, and I mend very well.

How Did We Get Here?

I somewhat reluctantly put pen to paper today. Reluctantly, because I know that what I wish to write about has no cachet, not even a hint of the flavour of the moment. Then again, it has been ever thus, so why not plunge in?

Although I shall invoke the Occupy movement, today’s topic is only tangentially related. The Occupy campaigns as they play out across cities, and indeed, countries serve to embody the polarization that seems likely to destroy the very fabric of western society. Is that melodramatic? Perhaps I should colour in that stark outline.

I watched a couple of hours of live-streaming video of Occupy Oakland ‘protesters’ a few nights ago, and I was troubled. I was even more troubled by media reporting on the event, however, which was often sensationalistic, one-sided, un-nuanced, and untruthful. As an example of a direct lie, some media reported that “protesters stormed the YMCA”, which is not what happened. The door to the YMCA was opened by someone to allow the protesters in – for whatever reason – and there are a number of videos posted to YouTube that show this. For sensationalism, we have only to look at the pictures of the American flag being set alight over and over again. At least one blogger reporting on this incident who claimed to have knowledge of the perpetrator suggested that mental health may have been an issue: here is an example of nuance. Horror! Sacrilege! The very symbol of freedom desecrated! The people watching at home declare their outrage and even the supporters of Occupy decry the violence of ‘protesters’: this is one-sided.

 I cannot pretend to have an expert opinion on what happened, but I do have a considered opinion. By that I mean I watched live-stream  and main stream video, read bloggers and paid columnists, talked to people who were there, and listened to the opinions of others. Was there violence? Undoubtedly. There was violence on the part of those in uniform, and on the part of those styled as ‘protesters’. Again, I do not claim the definitive version, but the violence of the protesters seemed related to property. In any case, the violence of the police seemed much the preponderance.

How did we get here, my imaginary friend? To the state where everything is presented as black/white, either/or, this/that – but never the other? At the point where four hundred people are arrested, and a thirty or sixty-second sound bite serves to sum it up? Where lies outweigh the truth, and the honeyed voices of carefully made-up news anchors instruct us what to believe? And shriller and shriller becomes the other side – in desperation?

 Here is another aspect for your consideration: Occupy again, but this time at the encampment at McPherson Square, DC. Watch carefully, watch twice even.


 How on earth, in a free and democratic society, did we come to believe that police officers should do their job in such a fashion? Without even speaking to the man arrested, using the taser as casually as blowing one’s nose, faces devoid of expression, or animation, or indeed, of human-ness.

 All democracies are about the conversation: “How shall we live?” Absolutely, categorically, this conversation must happen for societies to grow and  flourish. This is the crux, right here. The question is not whether we condone violence: we do not, most of us. The question is not whether the police had a right or reason to  arrest the lone protester; the question is why their behaviour shows no respect, no human values what so ever. The question is not whether you support the Occupy movement or no. The question is “how shall we live?”, and those who avoid the questions and the conversation are supporting the violence and dysfunction of our society. The rights and freedoms of democracy that we have taken for granted – at least in my lifetime – means that each of us has an array of choices. What underpins the choices, the daily bread of existence, are the institutions of government, of justice, of public education, of taxation, of all the things devoted to the common wheal that we citizens of democracies have fashioned over the course of time. There is no private good without the common wheal.

 Make no mistake, I am not making a statement of ideology here, but a statement of simple practicality: regardless of what choices you make and how you choose to live personally, these choices will disappear, quite literally, without the framework of our institutions. So how we got here is perhaps a sociological, psychological, and political question of great complexity, but how to move forward is simpler. As simple as recognizing that good conversations have an equal mixture of speaking and listening, with  the odd pause for reflection. As simple as recognizing that we must begin to inform ourselves, not expect to be informed. And as simple as recognizing that opting out of the conversation, means at this moment, supporting much that is wrong and shameful.

 It was time to end this long ago, perhaps, but I cannot help reflecting on what the  iconic Canadian artist Alex Colville said: “I suspect that what troubles people about my work, in which they find mystery and intrigue, may well be the idea that ordinary things are important.” The ordinary things, the geography of our  daily lives and our nations, the taken-for-granted beauty of freedom and democracy  – we cannot celebrate these without recognizing the necessity of contributing to their flourishing. It is possible to consider the people of the Occupy movement as participants in the democratic process, rather than simply ‘protesters’. Their impassioned plea to redress the wrongs and shames of our nations in contrast to the deadened, impassive faces of the police arresting them shows the chasm we must bridge. Shall we choose to participate, or to invoke more violence by our silence?