“We heal with our presence. In order to help others to heal, we need to bring our wholeness into the examination room with us: our strengths, our courage, and even our anger and fears and doubts…
Yes, we cure with our expertise, but we heal with our life experience and our attention. We heal most often with our presence, and perhaps the most common tool of healing is just listening…We listen just to know what is true for this person at this moment in time – to witness it and validate it – and accept it.”
~ Medical reformer, Dr Rachel Naomi Remen writing on how doctors can heal with their presence
Presence is hard to describe. I don’t mean loud presence. I mean a quieter, soulful and heartful Presence. You know it when it’s there. You know when you are transformed or healed by it. It is subtle yet profound. And it lingers with you long after the person left.
Before I share about this Presence that Dr Remen talks about, I want to share about its absence. I felt its absence when I went to the first vet on the day my late dog, Max suddenly lost use of his hind legs. I left feeling confused, distraught and afraid that the vet simply did not know what she was dealing with. She also didn’t seem connected to me and my emotions. That night was one of the worst nights of my and Max’s life. We were both in pain and helpless. And so when I brought Max to see another vet, I could appreciate him more.
Dr Dennis Choi of Mt Pleasant Vet Centre has the kind of Presence Dr Remen shares about.
He practices generous listening. He allowed me to finish sentences. Sometimes there were no more words and he allowed a silence to emerge in the room. In a society where we try to fill up every gap in space and conversations because many find silence to be awkward, this stands out.
He answered questions patiently. When I asked him to check if the supplements I wanted to give Max were ok, he did, via email, even if that was not part of a billed consultation.
He handled Max with gentleness that made up for what cancer did to Max. Once when Max lost control of his bowels and soiled Dr Choi’s hands, he didn’t flinch, and didn’t make us feel bad. You may say this is part of the work for people in his profession. I don’t remember his words, I remember his tone. He embraced the sh*tty moment in the most elegant, graceful and kind way possible.
Presence shows up in the eyes since the eyes are the windows to our soul. Dr Choi has kind eyes.
It’s hard to teach someone to look with kind eyes. It’s something that emerges from the person from the inside. There are all kinds of courses that teach helping professionals to communicate better. These are important. But we need more support for the inner life of the healing professional. It is more difficult work but it is more important work.
Some time after Max died, I left Dr Choi a note in his hospital. About a week later, I received a call. It was him. He spent about 15 minutes with me. Unhurried. He didn’t have to have this conversation. Max was gone.
One of the things I had shared with him in the note was that there were not many resources for people grieving over the death of their animals in Singapore. And he agreed, adding that not much is covered about this in vet studies as well. He said that even if we are professionally trained (he was a vet and I was trained as a social worker), we are not immune from emotions such as grief. This was a moment of real connection and authenticity. It is the connection that comes from shared vulnerability that Dr Remen speaks of:
“I like the archetype of the Wounded Healer which symbolizes that two people in a healing relationship are peers, both wounded, and both with healing capacity. Just by being here, in these bodies, we are wounded, we are incomplete, if you will. But we also have the capacity for wholeness as part of our birthright. It comes out of our human nature. If you and I are participating in the healing process together, it is my woundedness that allows me to connect to you in your woundedness. I know what suffering is. I also know that you may feel separated from other other people by your suffering. You may feel lost, frightened, trapped. My woundedness allows me to find you and be with you in a way that is nonjudgemental. You are not the sick one or the weak one. We are here together, both capable of suffering, both capable of healing”. (Source: Healers on Healing which I highly recommend for those in healing profession.)
I have now learned why I value people like Dr Choi. He values relationships in a society that seems to have less and less time for it. And he extends that to not just his animal patients but their caregivers too.
Dr Remen distinguishes healing from curing. Max couldn’t be cured but he was healed by his family and his vet. And I was healed by various things, include Dr Choi’s kindness.
Max had soulful and powerful Presence in my life. He gifted us with quiet grace, sensitivity and consideration. His last vet gave Max and us the same gifts.
(This is simply a personal account of my experience. Please choose your veterinary professional based on what is important to you. Thank you.)