Why Do Doctors Ignore Suffering?

Rodney Warner
Rodney Warner
One of the keys to getting through cancer treatment is the ability to suffer. When I went through treatment, thankfully I was very rarely in any acute pain, but for long stretches I was generally miserable. Without energy, my stomach a constant mess, stressed out. But maybe the necessity to suffer should be something in past.

How many of us suffer because of indifference by health care professionals and the health care system? This came to mind after reading an article by a physician, Dr. Benjamin Corn, who’s a professor of oncology in Israel. He recounts spending time with a rabbi that he was very close to while he spent his last days in a “prestigious academic medical center” dealing with pancreatic cancer.

No words were required for me to see that the man ached. Slowly, Rav Benny rolled up the legs of his pajama pants. He sensed my discomfort—the uneasiness of someone who wanted to be his student and his friend but not his physician. “Let me continue,” he requested. I nodded. Exposed before my eyes were swollen legs of the largest diameter that I’d ever witnessed. The image was stark. Beneath the hospital attire laid a forsaken person. The edema that had backed up into the lower reaches of his extremities had stretched the skin so tight that he’d surely lost all feeling. His thighs, in particular, were transformed to cylindrical vessels that were ready to burst from fluid pressure. “No one examines me anymore. And even if they did, they wouldn’t understand my ordeal.” He had something to impart. The medical establishment, even at the renowned institution, was derelict in its duty.

“Come closer,” instructed Rav Benny. “Touch me. Understand my suffering. Don’t let this happen to anyone else. It is forbidden.” He spoke, then, in unambiguous Hebrew, using phrases that bore the status of rabbinic injunction. For physicians to allow suffering to go unchecked was far less acceptable to him than for any of his disciples to eat pork or practice idolatry. “Where are the souls of your colleagues?” he asked with bemused curiosity.

…Rav Benny immediately grasped that his disease was incurable. Yet because he was endowed with an unlimited capacity for kindness, it was anathema for him to behold healthcare professionals who were indifferent to his hardship. Surely, he intuited, the problem must be rampant.

The article goes on to discuss research into the topic of physicians’ treatment of their patients’ suffering and ways to increase empathy by those in the medical profession.

You can only do so much about your physician’s approach, empathy deficit, personality or training. What you can do is inform your physician about the suffering you’re going through and demand (nicely at first) that he or she do something to help you. If there is no help, by one means or another, you have the wrong doctor.

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