Suffering can create our Greatest Gifts.
Sometimes it is those who have suffered the most who can be the most powerful healers. And sometimes it is through the willingness to heal and serve others, that we find our own pathway to wholeness.
A few days ago, as I opened the door of our pediatric health center, I could smell the scent of lemon and lavender rising from the vaporizer, as the morning sun shone through the window, announcing a new day. We have a group of “practice assistants,” who get the rooms ready for the doctors to see patients. I always feel invited and inspired by the way they do their work with such diligence. There they were: gathered together around the welcome desk: Monica, Petra, Sylvia, Claudio, and Adina.
I became absorbed for a moment in a memory from the past. I remembered a baby girl, only a few months old, who came into the hospital more than 20 years ago. It was in the old Children’s Hospital, by the banks of the Rhine river. I was on my rounds, and as I got to room four, I read the report that had been left by the admitting pediatrician: “Failure to Thrive.” The little girl was lying in her cot, with her parents next to her. We took the medical history, we examined her carefully, we ran through all the tests. One of the tests, which was called the “sweat test” back then, came back positive.
This meant that this little baby was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a chronic illness primarily affecting the lungs and her digestion. It was incurable. Her life expectancy was probably not far beyond adolescence. This was one of those terrible moments of having to break challenging news to the parents of a young child, and then to help them assimilate and adapt.
I have seen her over the years as she has grown. She has been admitted time and time again for countless courses of antibiotics, intensive physiotherapy, and endless diagnostics, including chest X-rays, blood samples, lung function tests, and ultrasounds. You name the test, she has had it done.
I have seen the many ways this has affected her family: the multiple impacts of her illness, and all the consequences it has had for her finding friends while being different. When others were running around, she was always the first one out of breath. I witnessed her struggle to navigate the world of dating when she became an adolescent, and the challenges of finding someone mature enough to be able to commit to someone with a serious chronic condition.
Besides her parents, the most important relationship she developed was with her treating chest physician. He has been available for her, far and beyond routine annual checkups and bedside visits during hospitalizations. On the phone, and later by WhatsApp, not just for her medical needs, but he knew when she could not go on the ski trip with her class; he knew when she had broken up with a boyfriend, he knew how she was doing at school. And he knew the whole family, and how they were all coping. He was like a rock in the sea for her.
A few months ago, this chest physician was sitting dead center in the first row at the play that she starred in. She co-wrote it with a group of other adolescents who all had severe chronic diseases. She was brilliant. Playing the doctor as a caricature, with such humor, presence, and totality that she captivated everyone’s attention from start to finish. The play emphasized the many challenges, as well as the triumphs that these kinds of children go through within the health care system. Above all, the play was about how love can be a central element within medicine.
I looked up again from my brief reverie. That same girl, Adina, was now standing in front of me as one of the groups of practice assistants, with a broad smile on her face.
She has short hair now, she cut it specifically for her new work in the pediatric practice. Looking fresh, with sparkling eyes, ready to start her first day as a trainee on our team. She is so ready to become a healthcare professional, and to give back to the next generation of patients, some of whom may suffer as she has.
I know full well, from all I have seen and experienced, that Adina will have a whole wealth of gifts to share with children, because of all she has been through. It can be that those who suffer the most are also those who have the greatest gifts to give to others.