Human Spirit in the Face of Illness

“I’ve had surgery every year for the past decade or so, and I take over 15 kinds of medication every day. Everything that can go wrong, has gone wrong.” Ms. R handed me two sheets of paper with all her medications and illnesses written down. “That’s so I don’t forget,” she grinned.

In Patient-Doctor 1 this week, I interviewed a patient in her home, which allowed me to get a glimpse of how she managed her illness. Despite having bipolar disorder, OCD, breast cancer, almost all of her colon removed, lower back pain, arthritis, gastritis, pain in her hand, and seizure attacks, Ms. R exuded an abundance of positive energy and optimism.

“You don’t get anything from feeling sorry for yourself all the time,” she said. Ms. R pointed to a picture frame on her living room table. “But you see this. She’s the best daughter in the world. Without her, I don’t know what I would do with myself.”

Later that night, I found out that one of my close college friend’s father had passed away. When he was diagnosed with cancer, doctors gave him just a couple of months to live, but his family refused to believe that and did everything they could to help him. He ended up living for more than 2 years, fighting to survive so that he could see his son find a job and get engaged.

One thing that has been on my mind since all of this happened is where do people, who suffer from serious illness, draw their hope (if any) from? In other words, for people who suffer from major disorders or disabilities, how and where do they find motivation and purpose to live? And how can we, as medical students, physicians and caregivers, recognize and harness that force to help them?

These questions will be on my mind more and more as I go through medical school because death and dying are things that I will come across on a daily basis. Human resiliency is not something we have studied nor talked about much in medical school, but I feel like it’s such a crucial component of healing – something that helps give a human spirit to disease and suffering.

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