Wounded healers

During my medical career I met several doctors and nurses who had achieved excellence in their work despite – or maybe because of – health  difficulties of their own. I am sure I could not have coped so well as they did, but my recent experiences of the patient’s role have made me wonder what it would have been like if I was still in practice.

The term “wounded healer” is usually attributed to Carl Jung, who used it in a psychological context. Many of those who choose psychotherapy or counselling as a career are seeking, consciously or not, to cure problems of their own. If they have insight into these and have taken steps to resolve them, it may make their work more effective. If not, they risk causing further damage to their clients.

The term is also associated with Chiron, a figure from Greek mythology, who suffered from a chronic physical wound as the result of a poisoned arrow. He was able to heal other people but could never cure himself. I don’t know how Chiron felt about this, but many of today’s clinicians would be embarrassed by such a scenario – in line with the mantra “physician heal thyself”, there is a widespread assumption that healthcare professionals should not be ill themselves. Some patients do lack confidence in staff who have something evidently wrong with them. Others feel comforted to know that their attendants are vulnerable to the same ills as the rest of humanity, and encouraged to see them overcoming their limitations and carrying on their careers.

Compared to those in robust health, clinicians with personal experience of ill-health tend to be more sensitive and empathic, which within limits is a good thing but if taken too far can lead to over-involvement, excessive self-disclosure, loss of objectivity, and emotional exhaustion.

There is also the question of fitness to practise. There are both legal and ethical imperatives to give equal opportunities to those with illness or disability, and not discriminate against them. At the same time it must be acknowledged that they may be less capable of work than their healthy peers. Every case is different depending on the skills required in the specialty concerned, the nature of the physical and/or mental symptoms, and the time course of the condition – whether there is a chronic but stable handicap, or an episodic illness with recovery in between attacks. Whatever the diagnosis, it is likely that stamina will be impaired.

The main points that stand out from my own experience of the patient’s role relate to communication. I realised first-hand what a big impact the words of a healthcare professional can make; a casual or clumsily phrased statement regarding diagnosis or prognosis can stick in the patient’s mind, whether instilling fears that may prove unfounded, or providing reassurance that turns out to be false. Also, that the position of the patient’s relatives needs to be acknowledged, and considered in management of the case. Of course I knew about these things before, though I don’t recall being taught anything about them in my medical school days, and did not fully appreciate them till later in my career. Today’s students get more training in “soft” topics like communication skills, and hopefully do not need to wait till they or their loved ones are seriously ill to understand their importance.

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