And that’s when I realized… something about love.

“And that’s when I realized…” is a series of reader submissions. It is an attempt to allow people to tell their realizations, both the comical and poignant. To submit to this series, please email me at firebunny58@gmail.com.  Today’s post is by Cindy Corpier. 

My beeper startled me with its high-pitched screech just after I escaped the morning rush on Dallas’ Central Expressway.  I steered with one hand, popped open the screen with the other and glanced down at the message reminding me of a patient appointment due in less than fifteen minutes.  Blessedly alone in my car, I exhaled in irritation.  Of course, I remembered the appointment—I’d blocked the time apart from my usual clinic hours especially for Suzanna’s* kidney transplant follow-up.  She always required extra time, though not because of her medical condition.  On any given day her behavior ranged from crying jags, to threats of suicide, to angry outbursts directed against her dead mother and every doctor she’d ever seen (except me, at least so far).  So I wasn’t looking forward to starting my long day with this visit.  Don’t get me wrong, I felt bad for her.  Eighteen months earlier Suzanna had been living a life filled with family, travel and interesting work as a paralegal.  Then disaster struck and a rare kidney disease changed everything. 

We met before her transplant when she came for treatment at one of the dialysis centers where I worked.  We both hoped the transplant would restore her energy, her looks and her life, but another unusual complication stubbornly refused to improve leaving her with pain and limited mobility.  Not surprisingly, she responded with the unholy trinity of frustration, depression and anger—a spectrum of emotion that, as a kidney specialist, I’m pretty well versed in helping patients through.  After all, kidney failure is a life-altering event that leaves no corner of one’s existence untouched in the struggle to stay alive—body image, family, sex, work, leisure, or finances.  However Suzanna’s fury was unusually persistent and often twisted itself into ugly paranoid rants that made me feel as though I was being sprayed with acid.  Nothing I said ever seemed to help, but I couldn’t turn her away because the truth was that no other doctor in my group would take care of her.  She was way too much trouble.  The view just wasn’t worth the climb.      

Around the same time, my husband and I adopted a second orange-striped rescue kitten we named Little Guy.  We soon found that unlike our other cat (Squeaker, the Best Cat Ever), this one insisted on marking his territory as cats do, by peeing on furniture, bedclothes and even once on me.   The peeing infuriated my husband to the point that he wanted to return the three-month-old kitten.  But I couldn’t do it.  We had made a commitment to this tiny orphan; so Little Guy was ours, peeing and all.  

Something deep inside wouldn’t let me reject that vulnerable creature.  I guess it’s the same something that made me continue managing Suzanna’s care even though logic predicted she would eventually turn on me as she had so many other doctors.   

On that particular day, Suzanna was in pretty good form.  She didn’t rant or get angry.  She got only a little teary-eyed but didn’t sob.  Her medical condition was all right and the visit didn’t take nearly as long as usual.  As we both stood to leave the miniature exam room, I complimented her new red handbag.   She smiled like the cute little girl she once was and thanked me for noticing.  Just as I reached for the door, mentally exhaling, this time in relief, on a clean getaway with no drama, Suzanna caught my eye and said something in her soft, feminine voice that she’d never said before.  
“I love you.” 

We were standing about two feet apart and since she’s several inches taller than me, I was looking up into her sad blue eyes.  With only a nanosecond’s hesitation, I replied, “I love you too, Suzanna.”    

This exchange happened more than twenty years after my 1984 medical school graduation.  I’d always known there was something hard to define that happens between doctors or nurses and patients.  I had heard it called empathy and compassion, caring and respect, but I’d never heard it called love.  As a kid of the seventies, I threw around the word “love” pretty freely.  When I was twelve, I used Magic Markers and masking tape to emblazon my bedroom’s closet door with a rainbow colored LOVE sign that horrified my parents.  Everybody knew I loved Paris, rock music, opera, my friends, the color blue, a gorgeous pair of shoes, dark chocolate, great books and writers, modern art and, certainly, my cats.  But the word “love” wasn’t supposed to be used in reference to patients.  It smacked of sentimentality and a loss of the objectivity necessary for being a good physician.  To “love” a patient indicated unresolved boundary issues on the part of the doctor or maybe some weird psychological problem.  Even worse, emotional displays are not cool.  They don’t fit the “manly” standards we are all expected to maintain.  Care, but don’t talk about it.      

Also around the same time, I was feeling a slow angry burn of my own over the dismantling of my profession and my utter powerlessness to change it.  The people who had been taking care of the people damaged by the lethal products of other protected industries were increasingly coming under siege.  We had somehow become the enemy.  The other.  No, actually we had become one of those products.  A commodity.  Health care provider.  That’s what we are called now.  Not doctor.  Not physician.  What does the word physician mean anyway?  “One who maintains or restores human health through the practice of medicine.”  That’s what it means.  So how did a profession full of people working to maintain and restore human health become a commodity like tobacco or coffee or cell service?  The answer’s a long story and clearly no one seriously considered the ramifications, like whether a commodity would be concerned about that line between living and dead.      

But Suzanna’s words and my answer stayed with me and caused me to think.  She took me back to my high school years when I never missed a Sunday at Calvary Baptist Church.  I remembered those hours of hearing Brother Step Martin preach against sin with all the passion we expected from a good Southern preacher.  Ever so often though, he preached about love.  From Brother Step, I learned that unlike English, the Greek language distinguishes between four kinds of love.  There is the physical love of eros that everybody knows about, the friendship love of philia, and the affection of storge.  

And, there is the sacrificial love of 1 Corinthians Chapter 13, the love called agape described as (hang on):  long suffering, kind, unselfish, protective, trusting, hopeful, persevering, not touchy, fretful or resentful.  This is also the one that triumphs.  I don’t claim to be a Greek scholar and I definitely don’t claim agapeselflessness in my daily life nor do I attend Sunday sermons.  I just love the idea of different kinds of love for the different relationships in my life.  I love the idea that I can have them all. 

The day Suzanna told me she loved me and I responded in kind was the day I realized it was okay to accept what I had felt for a long time.  I let myself reject the notion that my “womanly” standard of caring was less valuable, less legitimate than the prevalent “manly” models.    When a patient comes to me and puts herself in my care, my heart opens up to her in a particular way that doesn’t mean I need to see her outside the office, or become friends in the usual sense and allow our private lives to overlap.   Quite simply, I love these hers (and hims) and want the best for them.  My love is not perfect.  It fails sometimes, but it is real.   

We’re now seven or maybe eight years out from the morning my beeper screeched.  I still have Suzanna and, yes, we still have Little Guy, who recently marked my expensive Levenger backpack as his own.  Medicine continues to change in ways I don’t believe will help us maintain and restore human health.    

But no matter what the marketplace or our friends in Congress do, this commodity intends to remain a physician who loves. 

If you need a little inspiration, you can always go back to a great seventies tune by the Bellamy Brothers and “Let Your Love Flow,” 



Just let your love flow like a mountain stream

And let your love grow with the smallest of dreams

And let your love show

And you’ll know what I mean, it’s the season

Let your love fly like a bird on the wing

And let your love bind you to all living things
And let your love shine
And you’ll know what I mean, that’s the reason

* Not her real name

Cindy Corpier is a recent MFA in Fiction graduate from Spalding University.  She lives in Dallas, Texas where she practices Nephrology.  She’s never gone on a bad vacation, still believes she’ll one day speak French fluently and lives with an incredibly patient husband along with two fairly impatient orange cats.

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Comments:

  1. I love Dr. Hafiz; the only doctor that took the time to listen, really listen. Perhaps that’s why it was he who got the brunt of my frustration. http://wp.me/p2o8a4-As

    Perhaps that’s why Suzanne loves you so much. Can’t say the same for Little Guy. Cats have their own sense of order and justice.

  2. Cindy, this is fabulous. When I worked in the psychology field we were constantly warned of transference and maintaining boundaries, yet sometimes the very thing that patients need is what we withhold from them. Beautifully said, Cindy. Thanks!

  3. Cindy, what a great piece! We know that doctors are human, but sometimes out of fear we forget. You have reminded me of the abundance of human compassion and care that exists in this world. Recently, my preacher gave a sermon about the four kinds of love and you’ve helped me to see another application of it. Thanks for your writing.

  4. My thanks to each of you. What else could “Nested” be about if not L-O-V-E. Thank you, Kate.

  5. Wow I liked this what can I say about doctors well they are human even if we tend to forget so at times…………

  6. Beautiful. Thank you!

  7. Dr. Cindy,

    I LOVE your essay. It gave me goosebumps and the best kind of tears. I’m so honored to call you a friend and sister writer.

    xoxoxoxo

    Kathleen

  8. Cindy, this is a beautiful and moving essay. Thank you!

  9. Cindy, this is a beautiful and moving essay. Thank you! And good for you for being a champion of love…you’re a REAL physician.

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