Latter-day Doctoring

Recently I had an interesting experience in the middle of a busy clinic day. I had fallen behind on my appointment schedule and was worried that my upcoming patients would be upset with having to wait, but I was pleased when the next visit went quickly. As I concluded the assessment I stood up to leave the room, but the patient ignored my non-verbal cues and kept talking. He began to tell a story, and despite my impatience I had the feeling that I should sit back down again and listen.

One day the patient’s wife started to feel unwell and went to bed early. As the days went by she had felt more and more ill, and eventually spent all of her time in bed. Eventually her mental state also worsened, and she stopped making sense when she talked. My patient had health problems of his own which limited his ability to walk, and as her health worsened his condition also deteriorated. After some time they had a visit from his wife’s sister, who was alarmed to discover the poor state of their health. She called for two ambulances to take both the husband and the wife to the hospital.

“I never spoke with my wife again,” the man said regretfully. Doctors had quickly discovered that she had advanced breast cancer which had spread throughout her body. “She was just scared,” he guessed. “She knew what was happening but she didn’t tell me because she was scared to go to the hospital.” She suffered a cardiac arrest a day or so into their hospitalization and was resuscitated. My patient described being wheeled from his own hospital room to the intensive care unit to see her one last time before instructing her doctors to withdraw her life support.

I told the man how sorry I felt for what had happened to him and his wife. He shook my hand and then left the room, apparently satisfied that he had said all that he wanted to say. How glad I was that I had not left the room when I had first intended to! How would he have felt if I had forced my way out of the conversation and out of the room right when he was getting ready to share this intense and very personal experience with me?

I don’t know why my patient had felt such a strong desire to share that story, but I do know why I listened. He needed to mourn, so I needed to mourn with him. He was carrying a burden, and I needed to carry it with him. These are obligations I accepted on the day that I was baptized.

The Book of Mormon tells the story of an ancient American prophet named Alma, who described the kind of love and service we should give to one another as disciples of Christ (Mosiah 18:8-10, emphasis added. Also compare these verses with John 13:34-35 in the New Testament):

  1. And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;
  2. Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—
  3. Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?

When I sat back down to listen to this man who needed to talk I wasn’t exactly thinking about the promises I had made with God on my baptism day. But I was trying to be the kind of person that I thought the Lord would want me to be. I am not the most compassionate doctor in the world, or the best listener, but I am certain that my religion helps me to be better at these things than I otherwise would be. My faith helps me to be a better husband, father, and doctor.

Note: A revised version of the post can be found here.

Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

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