More Than a Doctor’s Bag

My dad’s black leather doctor’s bag went with him everywhere: to Children’s Hospital in Oakland about an hour away from home, to his office in nearby Pleasant Hill, and to his many house calls in the areas in between. When I was young, I thought that everything my dad needed as a cardiologist to help patients was in that bag, and that is why he was never without it.

But as I got older I realized that Dad’s ability to help someone feel better must have come from something more than what was in his bag because he rarely, if ever, dispensed anything from it for our family – two active kids and our mom.

Dad often took phone calls from patients at home. I remember one time, when I was a teenager and we were just about to leave the house for a special family outing, the phone rang and Dad disappeared into another room. We waited for him. Several hours later, he hung up the phone and came back into the living room and said something like: “They thought they needed a pill, but they didn’t. They needed to change the way they were thinking and living…to see themselves and their situation differently.”

There were other calls like this that led Dad to cancel our family plans so he could take the time to talk with a patient. Pretty disappointing for us kids. But as we grew up we learned Dad’s important lesson: the arms of our family’s love and cooperation could be extended to others, and that this care made a real difference in their lives.

Recently, I’ve been encountering a number of studies showing that the quality of a patient’s thought has a significant impact on the body, and consequently the time and attention doctors give to patients can positively affect health outcomes. Because the physical problem is often more than what appears on the surface, a truly effective response calls for more than a doctor’s bag of medicine, a prescription or procedure.

Often, doctors who take time to ask questions about what is going on in a patient’s life and really listen to hear what is of concern and weighing on the patient’s thought helps the doctor uncover what may be exacerbating a physical problem. Addressing the patient’s thought in a kind, caring way, the doctor can help patients connect with inherent resources within them that are mentally positive in nature and that bring forth hope, expectation, gratitude and other qualities which research now shows affect the health of the body. My dad experienced this first-hand many, many times.

Seems to me that Dad was practicing not only the science of medicine, but its healing art. His doctor’s bag was a necessary aid, but its presence also hinted at something larger than could be contained in it – his commitment to responding with compassion and courage as he attended to his patients’ deeper needs.

While researchers are continuing to probe the relationship of mind and body – including the relationship of consciousness and the brain and how the body responds to thought – my dad surely sensed that it was the hearts of his patients that needed nurturing for the body to improve.