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The Art of Care

Technology and life only become complex if you let it be so.
~ John Maeda, "The Laws of Simplicity"

Saturday, March 16, 2012
Bozarth Center, Spokane Washington
Breakfast meeting & 9:00am talk on The Geography of Love,
"Compassion as a Pillar of Medicine: the Art of Care."

This upcoming Saturday the 16th of March, I will have the joy and privilege of addressing the Spokane County Medical Society. In particular, the women physicians of the SCMS, gathered at the Bozarth Center in Spokane, Washington, for their annual retreat.

This is an honor for me on many levels. To begin with, these busy and generally overworked physicians have made time for reading, and not just the professional journals and scientific work necessary to keep current in their specialities. These physicians also read for discovery, to engage in new ideas, for pleasure. These medical professionals, many who are also in book clubs, are terrific examples for all of us who feel that our lives have become impossible to tame - slaves to our calendars - and wonder where the days have gone where we used to get "lost in a book." Yes, we can still find time for reading: through a book club, a book event, e-readers on our exercise bikes, a book last thing we dip into before sleep. It takes commitment.

But all of life takes commitment, right? In my upcoming talk with these medical professionals, for whom "commitment" is organic to their ethic and calling, the concept of committing to care about the experiences of patients, the importance of compassion in scientific practice, and one's own emotional life in and out of medicine...all these ideas are both familiar and difficult. Who has the time? What will be the pushback from health care organizations slicing away minutes and hours; or insurance practices imposed on medical practitioners unable to spend that extra moment with a sorrowing, shocked, or uncertain patient or their family?

I recently finished a book by John Maeda, MIT professor and digital artist, called "The Laws of Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life" (MIT Press, 2006), wherein he tells a story regarding the importance of balancing meaning and clarity. The story goes loosely as follows: A wealthy socialite in Italy, given the news of a terminal cancer diagnosis (certainly clarity of message), was then told by her physician, "I have a ten minute limit per patient." In her fragile state this woman left her doctor's office in understandable shock, without either a sense of support or life options. In her last five months this brave woman decided to address this glaring gap in compassionate care and created a foundation to build beautiful, intensely artful areas in oncology centers where patients receiving this kind of life changing/shattering news would have a place to, as Maeda so gently puts it, "soak their minds and hearts." Maeda's point was that art gives a reason to live, and design, clarity of message. In the practice of medicine (design devoted to clarity of diagnosis and treatment), the art of care, compassion, is one pillar of patient care that addresses a genuine human spiritual need but is often overlooked.

I am deeply grateful to this gathering of physicians for their interest in my memoir, The Geography of Love, and my individual journey through the harrowing and enlightening experience of terminal illness with a loved one. But I especially love the strong energy of their personal commitment to the art of care, to literature, reading, and renewal. What we do says so much about who we are.
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