Wednesday, October 28, 2009

So simple, so human...

The power of compassion heals.
-Joanne Cacciatore

I've always known, intuitively- viscerally, that the compassionate presence of another human being could heal, not just psychologically, but also the somata (the body). But who knew that a smile or a hug just might curtail the common cold?

A new study conducted by the University of Wisconsin's School of Medicine and Public Health suggests that compassionate interaction with a physician can actually decrease the duration of rhinovirus. Yes, indeed. It's true. David Rakel, M.D., the principal investigator, notes that, "... if you perceive your doctor as empathetic (sic), that might influence your immune system and help you recover faster from the common cold...Out of everything that's been studied - zinc, vitamin C, anti-viral medications - nothing has worked better at fighting a cold than being kind to people."

He added, "...The individual needs to find the clinician with whom they believe they can form an ongoing therapeutic relationship. This also stresses the importance of relationship primary care, where each individual develops a collaboration and relationship with a clinician they trust over time."

Apparently, patients who felt that connection had higher levels of IL-8, a chemical that "summons" cells in the immune system to fight microbial infectors.

Wow. Compassion heals.

Now, if a person can experience expedited recovery from a cold through simple acts of kindness, imagine- just imagine- the powerful effects of truly connecting with another human being during a trauma. No, kindness won't assuage grief, or guilt, or shame, or any other residually painful emotion of human trauma. But imagine the dramatic potential of kindness- empathy- compassion on the long-term psychological well-being of a traumatized person. And taken a step further, imagine the long-term, potential effects to their physical health as well. If a compassionate other can increase a person's immune response, then what happens to a person in the absence of compassion, particularly during a serious or terminal illness- or during a traumatic experience?

I have never understood why compulsory courses on compassionate psychosocial care weren't part of the curriculum in medical schools. It seems so basic- so human- that is, being kind to another. Perhaps, someday soon, at the behest of insurance companies seeking to reduce healthcare costs, this type of training will be an integral part of medical training for both physicians and nurses- and pastoral care and social workers- and psychologists and psychiatrists. Perhaps, one day, the central pedagogy of body-mind-soul will be accepted into the orthodoxy of medicine. And perhaps, one day, as Albert Einstein said, "our humanity will surpass our technology."

Now that's nothing to sneeze at.

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The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

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