From the opening of her essay, "Heart Failure," Rachel Conrad reveals the dark space of her psyche. Her generalization about patients’ “overload,” the symptoms of their various diseases, is her particular failure of heart. This inability to empathize with the other threatens her career.
Darkness becomes visible in her concrete example. Dr. Conrad describes a specific patient with congestive heart failure as obese at every pore. Her details invite the reader’s disgust—this patient’s overeating and laziness have brought on her own suffering. But they might also prompt the reader’s vulnerability—as a patient, would doctors judge her so harshly? Yet when other residents condemn the patient as fat rather than ill, Dr. Conrad knows the test results verify the patient’s suffering.
As a patient with several circulatory illnesses, including congestive heart failure, I was drawn to Dr. Conrad’s essay, curious how she saw such patients. Though I am not obese, nor careless, it was hard not to feel defensive as I read the first section. Yet I felt some hope as she was bothered by her harsh judgment.
Unlike her fellow residents full of ambitious plans, Dr. Conrad withdraws into silence: “sitting in a dark room to observe my breath.” She literally gets her gloved hands dirty washing pots and pans. Naming her disgust to a colleague prompts an epiphany. An anecdote about the Buddha, summarized by a quote from Pema Chodron, provides the seed for her insight: one must recognize one’s own darkness to empathize with another.
Dr. Conrad’s essay helped me to appreciate how another doctor, Dr. S, helped me heal. Whatever darkness she must have faced, Dr. S’s compassion first struck me because she had absorbed the story of my illness before we met. That respect made me an equal in our dialogue. Unlike the previous eight cardiologists I had consulted, she saw me as someone in charge of her life despite having suffered illnesses. Some damage had been caused by my behavior, my dark parts that led me to smoke and drink, but others were simply bad luck. It was clear Dr. S felt I was striving to heal. She believed my progress was substantial even though I wasn’t completely fit. Her interpretation of my test results put my heart in my hands.
A retired professor of English, Karen Jahn earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in writing creative nonfiction. She is revising her memoir, Surrender Blues. Read her piece, “My Heart is in My Hands” in the Spring 2015 Intima.
© 2015 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine