In the book The Insanity of God, the writer had been an American missionary to Somalia during the late 1980s through early ’90s. This was a time when there was no place on earth with greater needs, hardships, suffering, and dying. It truly was hell on Earth. The missionary and his small team risked their lives with every trip into this most desolate of places where there was no order, no laws except those established by the two warring classes. It was a world of total chaos in which people – men, women, and children -were starving to death by the thousands or killed in the terrible war surrounding them.
This missionary had been increasingly frustrated with their inability to truly help these people in a meaningful way. He wrote, “The people I wanted to help were living in such horrible conditions that my natural response was to focus only on what they lacked.” His typical encounter with people would sound something like this: “Do you need food? We have food. Is your baby sick? We have medicine. Do your children need clothes? We have clothes for them”.
He goes on to write that eventually, he realized those were not the most important questions. When he took the time to really listen to them, the people themselves told them what they needed most. He wrote, “One day, I said to a bent-over, shriveled-up woman, ‘Tell me what you need most? What can I do for you first?’ She looked ancient, but she may have only been in her forties. She began to share the following with me:
“I grew up in a village many days from here. My father was a nomad who sold camels and sheep. I married a camel herder who did the same things. He was a good man; together, we had a good life and four children. The war came, and the militia marched through our village, stealing or slaughtering most of our animals. When my husband tried to stop them from taking our last camel, they beat him, and they put a gun to his head (and tears began to trickle down her cheeks). I worked hard to care for my children, but the drought came, and despite everything I tried to do, it wasn’t enough. My oldest boy got sick and died. When the last of our food was almost gone, my children and I began walking. I hoped that life would be better here in the city. But it is not; it is harder. Men with guns everywhere. They raped and beat me. They took my older daughter. I only have the little one left.”
This woman, as did countless others, desperately needed more than the help that this missionary team was prepared to give. The writer came to understand that what these people wanted, even more, was for someone, anyone, even a stranger, to sit for a while and let them share their stories. This is the power of human presence! It is never enough to merely feed, shelter, and medically treat people. Individuals who have witnessed profound evil, endured terrible hardships, and suffered heartbreak and loss, have also lost all sense of their own humanity.
He continued, “By listening to their stories, we are saying to them that they mattered. We are saying that they were important enough to be heard. Just by listening, we could restore a measure of humanity. Often that felt more important and more transforming than one more dose of life-saving medicine or another days’ worth of physical nourishment.”
We are fortunate that we do not live in such a hellish nightmare. I believe that what this missionary came to understand is equally applicable to each of us. Our patients come to us sick, frightened, at times dying. They feel vulnerable and helpless. They are often totally dependent on others. Their life has become chaos. They, too, can feel as if their humanity has been lost in the maze of increasing technology and decreasing personal touch that is medicine today.
Our patients have their own stories, too. They may not be as tragic as the one above, but they are nevertheless just as meaningful. Our lives are made up of stories, and stories are a powerful way to convey a message, to tell others who you are, what you need, what you fear, and what brings you joy. In the busyness of the day, when it seems that there is not enough time to do one more thing, or when you have done all you know to do, yet nothing has helped, may we take the time to sit down with them and “share their stories.” In doing so, we can bring the human side back to medicine. Isn’t that why we went into medicine?
Andy Lamb is an internal medicine physician. He can be reached at Bugle Notes.
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