Friday, June 27, 2008

More Good Listening for Chaplains

I’ve been listening to the radio again, and I’ve heard something that I think worth sharing.

I was listening to Fresh Air with Terry Gross this past Wednesday, June 25; or at least it’s what I had on in the background. In the midst of it, I heard Terry ask her guest, “I think your father was an Episcopal minister, wasn’t he?” With that, I started to pay more attention. I determined it was worth hearing again – something pretty easy if you have enough NPR stations in your “Favorites” or “Bookmarks” folder – and when I listened again, I thought it worth sharing here.

Jill Bolte Taylor, a Ph.D. neuroanatomist, has spent her career in researching brain functioning. In 1996 she became her own subject when she experienced a bleed affecting the left hemisphere of her brain. In her new book, My Stroke of Insight, she has described her experience of her stroke and her rehabilitation.

While I am sure the book will be worth reading, the interview itself is worth the time to listen, especially for chaplains. Let me share some of her statements that struck me as particularly interesting.

She spoke, for example, of her experience of those who visited her, and especially of those whose visits she felt helpful.

We’re in a society where, [if] someone is ill, we want to go visit them. There were two types of people in the world. There were people who brought me energy and people who took energy away from me…. If someone came in, they came in for maybe five minutes, they brought me love, there was no drama trauma, there was no “O woe is Jill.” There was only, ‘Oh, you are Jill, you’re going to be okay’…. There was only positive energy.

We wrestle in the profession, and especially in clinical training, with the question of what makes a “good visit.” We are to some extent trained that we haven’t done our job if we haven’t really dug into issues. For this patient that was not the case.

Dr. Taylor was asked by Terry whether she felt any “religious connection to what you’ve experienced?”

I do think my experience of that right-hemisphere bliss is what other populations would describe as a spiritual experience; and I think we’re wired to have spirituality. I think that’s why so many of us have an experience of spirituality. To me, religion is the story that different people tell themselves; because, you know, ultimately, whether your Christian-based or your Buddhist-based or whatever your choice of religion is, there’s a story that you tell yourself that gets you, allows you to quite your mind, whether it’s through mantra or prayer, to quite that left hemisphere language center in order for you to be able to feel that you are in relationship with something that is greater than you are as a single individual. So, I do think all religions are the left hemisphere story that helps us get into the right hemisphere experience.

As we seek to provide support at the bedside, I think chaplains do indeed value the patient’s faith story. We seek some commonality, something basically human, among the varying faith stories we hear. Dr. Taylor provides us her perspective on that.

A part of Dr. Taylor’s story, and no small part of her interest in the brain, is her brother’s experience of schizophrenia. In the interview Dr. Taylor spoke of what she had learned as a patient that is relevant to understanding mental illness.

I do think that I have a better understanding about how someone’s perception of reality can be so different from mine. You know, before it’s “You know, you walk like me and you talk like me, you’ve got to think like me,’ but I’ve really discovered that that is not true. The other insight that I’ve been given is how our society treats someone who is not totally cognitively connected to their reality; and it can be very hurtful. It can be a discriminating painfulness that makes somebody want to withdraw.

Asked what questions she had heard from families of other victims of stroke, she returned to her own experience as a patient.

You know, I think it’s really important that those of us who have left hemispheres, who would project drama and trauma onto the experience of stroke, we project our own fears onto the experience that this person is having; and that person may not be having as terrible a time as we’re projecting onto them. I think it’s very important that we love them, we come to them with love and celebration and gratitude for what they still have, and we focus on the ability instead of the disability, so they can feel that love and they don’t feel that they are less than, or viewed as less than they used to be before. So, to me it’s kind of approaching it with more of an open heart and an open mind, and being very cautious of what of our own fears are we projecting onto that person, when that may not be their reality.

That sense of projection is certainly an issue for chaplains, and for all in health care. Family and friends aren’t the only ones who project their own fears on the patient. We, too, are all too prone to do that. We need to be attentive to the patient as he or she is, and to base our care on what the patient experiences instead of what we fear experiencing.

And what about those whose experience of stroke is significantly different from hers? She recognizes that many do have a different experience, one that does not include the euphoria she herself experienced.

I’ve had individuals who have told me, “You know, I struggle now. I used to be very prayerful, and now I can’t find that big picture, I can’t find that experience that there is something greater than I am. And to these individuals I come right back to the most important message of my whole journey is our human brain is resilient. It is designed to heal itself. I firmly believe it. And you can try to reteach new cells in order to feel that again, and in order to create new function where you have had cells that have been lost.

In clinical chaplaincy we have long seen our work beginning with “exegeting the living human document.” We practice it in our verbatims, and many programs have supplemented that with interviews with patients. We learned that phrase, and see our profession founded, by Anton Boisen, whose autobiography Out of the Depths describes his own recovery from mental illness. Like Boisen, Dr. Taylor has analyzed her own experience as a “living human document.” She has shared with us something of her experience as a patient. I’m sure many will appreciate her book. In the meantime, I think this interview is well worth a listen.


David Fleenor said...

I look forward to hearing this. I did see a video of her online where she spoke movingly about her stroke experience and would commend that as well. See it here.

Marshall Scott said...

david f, thanks for that. I'll have to take a look.