Compassion in medicine

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Mayo Clinic scientists, doctors and other health professionals waited April 16 under the glare of the security staff stationed in the conference room at Mayo Clinic. The excitement in the buzzing sound from everyone’s conversation was palpable, until the entry of several security men from the side door signaled the entrance of His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, and a Buddhist spiritual leader. A hush swept over the room; everyone stood in eerie silence as the Dalai Lama entered with his head bowed and his hands clasped. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop as he took his position on the elevated stage. He spoke first and the audience breathed one collective sigh and smiled all together.

Medicine is most successful when practiced with compassion, the Dalai Lama told the Mind and Life Institute’s “Investigating the Mind-Body Connection” conference. Success sometimes eludes medical practitioners, despite scientific knowledge, “because something is missing in the heart,” he said. “It’s the combination of medicine and compassion” that is needed.

In introducing the Dalai Lama, Glen S. Forbes, M.D., the CEO of Mayo Clinic Rochester, said, “There is a sense of purpose in all of us sharing out life experiences. We seek those things that link us together, and we seek to understand those things that differentiate us.”

Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., internationally known psychologist and author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, moderated the panel discussion. In response to the first question about the role of compassion in medicine, His Holiness responded in good humor that he came to the Mayo Clinic to get a checkup and not for serious discussion. Further, he added, that his mind has been distracted and scattered in recent months [reference to events in his community], although later he added that despite disturbances, his sleep was not disturbed.

That response generated laughter from the audience as well as those on the panel, and the tone of relaxed seriousness was set. For the next two hours, His Holiness spoke to the audience in English, sometimes directly and sometimes with the help of his translator, about compassion in medicine.

In Buddhism, he said, there are two key elements of compassion: 1) a wish for the other person; and in addition to that wish for the person, 2) courage, because you want to help that person be free from suffering.

In response to a question about “burnout,” the Dalai Lama said that, “whatever pursuit one is engaged in, the element of joy is important to sustain interest and not get burned out. The work of health care professionals is related to suffering. It is noble, and if the worker recognizes that it reinforces their sense of joy, that may help sustain enjoyment of work.”

Serving others, as doctors do, is sometimes difficult, he acknowledged, “but any work where you encounter challenge, when you accomplish work, you get sense of fulfillment. At a fundamental level, each one of us aspires for our happiness, and engaging in work such as health care, teaching, etc. – a work where you serve others – and serving others is one of the most successful ways of maintaining self satisfaction.”

In response to Dr. Goleman’s question about whether there is a test for compassion that could be applied to medical students, the Dalai Lama replied that although he wasn’t aware of one, he believes that external signs of compassion can be observed. The time has come, he said, “for society to make cultivation of compassion” a priority.

“Suffering,” he said, “brings joy and happiness and relief. When you experience pain, you know joy. If you shift focus from yourself to another who is worse, then you’ll recognize that you’re not that bad and can appreciate the situation you’re in.”

Replying to a question from the floor about how he handles his own worries, he said his approach is “if you can’t do anything about it, why worry?” He explained that he seeks guidance from his religious beliefs, and that he meditates.

To maintain his mental level of compassion and strength during stressful times, the Dalai Lama said that he takes his prescribed medicine, he exercises regularly, and he maintains a regular daily routine, waking at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. to prepare for early sleep, getting approximately eight hours of sleep, and not eating dinner in preparation for good appetite in the morning.

In response to Dr. Goleman’s final question, a reqest for advice for the doctors and patients, the Dalai Lama replied that he applauded them for their hard work.

“Show your genuine self as a human being” in treating patients, he advised. “Smile.”

Jennifer Holder contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet and the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.

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