On the day I graduated from medical school, I took an oath that includes the famous words: “First do no harm.” I am happy to say that in entering my twentieth year as a physician, I have somehow managed to keep my word. But, is that really enough? I don’t think so. In fact, it seems to me that the focus of each physician on his or her subspecialty sells our patients short. If you will, it leads to a very real risk of missing the forest for the trees. In our troubled times, the best medicine that we can provide often does not come in a bottle. Unbeknownst to one of my patients, this fact would have eternal consequences.
When I looked at my schedule on that Tuesday morning, I didn’t see anything unusual. People were coming in for the usual issues-depression, anxiety disorders and other run of the mill problems for a psychiatrist. But, then she came in and sat down in my office-a new patient. She was young, sad and visibly uncomfortable in her own skin. It was my job to find out why.
The regret for something she had done was becoming unbearable. It was what came after that admission that changed the tone of our meeting. She told me that she is a Catholic. She sends her son to Catholic school. She goes to Mass. Yet, she had this burden of shame and regret that was eating away at her slowly and painfully. She told me how her young son would always ask her why she would not go to Holy Communion with him. What could she say? She couldn’t tell him what she had done. But, she now understood that she had to tell someone. She began to tell me, through tear soaked eyes that she had an abortion a couple of years earlier. The sadness was overwhelming and eating her up inside.
It was then that I realized that the medicine she needed did not come in a bottle. What she needed was a healthy dose of love and a recovery of her self. She needed an extraction of self-loathing. Yet, for all this time, she was stuck and confused. She wasn’t so sure that what she had done could ever be forgiven. Perhaps she could not forgive herself.
What happened next would be shocking to most of my physician colleagues. In fact, it would be shocking to most patients as well. Simply put, I told her that the medicine that she needed could not be found with me. But, I knew where she could get it. I gently challenged her to meet me at a Catholic church that was convenient for both of us on the upcoming Saturday afternoon. I promised that I would be there and support her through what we both knew would be a very emotional time. She reluctantly agreed to my offer and left the office. I wasn’t sure if I would ever see her again.
Four days had passed. The big day had arrived. I still wasn’t sure if she would be there. But, I was going to keep my end of the deal. When I pulled into the church parking lot, there was only one other car. It was hers. She came and brought an infant child with her. Her first words to me were: “I didn’t think you would come.” I smiled at her and we walked into the church together. I offered to watch her infant for her while she went into the confessional. However, much like the guilt she carried with her for so long, she refused to let go of this precious new life in her arms. Minutes passed. Finally, she emerged from the confessional and was full of tears. Unlike the Tuesday before, these were tears of joy. She was free.
Our paths crossed only one time since that day. We didn’t speak a word. We just smiled. The look on her face said it all. She was home again.