As I wrote about here, I believe medicine is a spiritual practice, because practicing medicine is all about being vessels for Divine love so we can facilitate the process of self-healing for our patients.
But nobody ever taught me this in medical school. I learned it by merely being human.
Because of my ability to be both human and a doctor, I have always practiced love, with a little medicine on the side.
The Night of Four Dead Babies
I’ll explain what I mean by that. I remember one crazy busy night in Labor & Delivery as a third year resident at Northwestern University when I delivered thirteen babies—four of which were dead—in one twenty-four-hour shift.
The night went something like this: run into a room, check the cervix of a woman who is in labor with a healthy baby, then run into the room next door, where a woman whose baby died at thirty-four weeks is eight centimeters dilated and about to push out her dead baby.
Then I had to run into another room, catch a live baby as it came flying out, then race off to yet another room, where a woman was terminating her pregnancy because her baby had a lethal chromosome problem—Trisomy 13.
Long story short, I would deliver a dead baby, wrap the baby in a blanket, hand her to her mother, and promptly start weeping. I wound up crawling in bed with these women, holding them in my arms as they held their dead babies, and crying with them until someone called my name overhead and I had to wipe my tears and run off to deliver a live baby.
By 4:00 a.m., I had delivered all four dead babies, and I was crumpled into a heap on the floor of the locker room, sobbing inconsolably. My teacher was standing in the doorway (because it was the women’s locker room and he was male) screaming at me, “BUCK UP, RANKIN. You’re never gonna make it in this field if you can’t get a thicker skin.”
And while he was screaming, two midwives sat on the floor, holding me, rocking me in their arms while I sobbed. One of them whispered the words I’ll never forget: “Don’t ever let them break you, Lissa.”
Keeping Your Heart Open
That’s the thing about practicing medicine. It’s a fine balance in order to feel with your patients and still manage to keep on chugging. I wasn’t much use for the rest of the night, and I pretty much cried through the deliveries of a few more live, healthy babies before my shift ended. But I still believe I eased the suffering of those women who delivered dead babies by being human, crying in bed with them rather than coldly doing my job and getting the hell outta dodge.
I decided in that moment, as that midwife rocked me, that I would NEVER let them break me. In fact, that’s why I left my traditional practice a few years back—because they were this close to breaking me and I just refused to let that happen. I had to reconfigure my practice so I could keep my heart open and not get fractured into a million little pieces.
I Love My Patients
I have a confession to make. This is something I have shared with hardly anybody, because it feels somewhat taboo. But it’s the truth.
I love my patients.
I genuinely love them and want the very best for their bodies, minds, and spirits. I’m not in love with them in some romantic way, and I’m not codependent with them in some creepy, unhealthy way.
But I truly love my patients. Some are harder to love. The ones with borderline personality disorder try my capacity for unconditional love. The crazy one who sued me for stealing her labia (yup…true story)—she was hard to love.
But for the most part, I pretty much love them all.
It’s Not Just Patients
In fact, it’s not just my patients I love—it’s everyone I help heal. I remember right before I went out on my book tour for What’s Up Down There, where I spoke to thousands of women, mostly young women at universities, about healing their girly part wounds. Just before I left, my mentor Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom, said, “Let me tell you a little secret, Lissa. You’re about to learn that you can walk into a room with a thousand strangers, and you can genuinely love every single person in that room. You might never speak to them or even touch their hand, but they will walk out feeling loved.”
And, by golly, Rachel was right. That’s exactly what happened. I was blown away by the love in those rooms.
And it’s not just people in public speaking venues. It’s you, too. I love all of you—even the ones I have never met, even the ones who have never even commented. I have the capacity to hold every one of you in my heart. And you have the same capacity when you open your heart wide enough.
The Healing Power of Love
This might seem strange to you. After all, we don’t talk much about loving patients or people in an audience or blog readers we’ve never met. And, yet, this is the magic of the healing power of love, and I think we should be talking about it, embracing it, rather than shying away from it. This is our secret weapon. It is more powerful than any drug or surgery. When we feel loved, we feel safe to tackle whatever demons or cancer cells or mental anguish may need to be healed. As a physician, that’s my job—to create the sacred container so you can heal yourself. I just hold the space and offer you my knowledge and healing tools in service to you. You pretty much do all the rest, but to do all that heavy lifting, you need to feel safe.
One Patient I Love
I have one patient I just adore. Early on, I told her I loved her, and she looked away. She wasn’t ready to receive what I had to give her after a childhood filled with abuse and neglect. But, I knew intuitively she needed to hear it, to know it, to experience it.
This love I have for her—it’s not what you think it is. It is literally Divine love channeling through me. I am just the vessel. She is loved by an infinite spirit far more capacious than me, and I am just the body, the voice, the hug.
Several weeks after I uttered the words, she told me she loved me, too. I already knew it to be so, and I didn’t need to hear the words, but I knew her ability to utter them was a sign of her healing, so they made me happy.
The Therapists Go Nuts
When they hear that I interact with patients this way, the therapists I know go nuts. They call it transference. They say it crosses professional boundaries. They tell me I’m potentially damaging my patients. They get upset that patients often turn into friends. They think I’m crazy for hugging people whose Pap smears I’ve done.
I think they’re flat out wrong. (No offense, therapists!)
I think it’s natural and human and Divine to love the people you help when you’re a healing professional. In fact, I think it’s the secret sauce, and it works better than any pharmaceutical I’ve ever come across.
The Shaman Gets It
I was talking about this issue with my shaman/teacher Jon Rasmussen, whom I have worked with to bolster my skills in the shamanic work I bring to my one-on-one work with patients. I told him the therapists accuse me of unhealthy transference, and I asked his opinion.
Jon smiled. He said, “It’s what we must do. We offer people a safe way to feel loved so they can practice giving and receiving love and then take it back into their daily lives.”
I felt a plunk in my heart when he said that—the kind of plunk I feel when I just know something is true.
We Need Another Word for Love
Part of the problem is that the word “love” is so overused. We love chocolate. We love our husbands. We love our children. We love our hobby. It has too many meanings.
So let me be clear. The kind of love I’m talking about might be better termed “agape,” from the Greek word which some translate to mean love. I love the word. It literally means “wide open,” and that’s the kind of love I feel for my patients—my heart is cracked wide open, and I am letting them all the way in, even when it causes me great pain, as it did on the night of four dead babies.
The dictionary defines agape love as “selfless love of one person for another without sexual implications [especially love that is spiritual in nature].” And that pretty much sums it up.
That’s My Story, and I’m Sticking to It
So that’s my thing. I practice love, with a little medicine on the side. Yes, I’m a skilled surgeon, an experienced integrative medicine practitioner, a gifted hormone balancer, but mostly, I just love, and the rest falls into place.
What you say won’t change how I practice medicine. I’m gonna keep right on practicing love. But I would love to dialogue about this! What do you think? Does this creep you out? Are you freaked at the idea of being loved by your doctor? Or would it be healing for you to feel wrapped in arms of love as you healed what it is in need of healing within you?
Loving you. For real,
Lissa Rankin, MD
Lissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and other health care providers, and the New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself. She is on a grassroots mission to heal health care, while empowering you to heal yourself. Lissa blogs at LissaRankin.com and also created two online communities—HealHealthCareNow.com and OwningPink.com. She is also the author of two other books, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, and an avid hiker. Lissa lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and daughter.
BUY DR. LISSA RANKIN’S BOOK BELOW: