Saturday, February 25, 2006

Treating Disease with Compassion

This post is in response to Elizabeth’s question about how to treat disease, addiction with compassion. My practice comes from two teachers. The first one is Steven Levine. He is one of the most balanced spiritual teachers I have every come across. You can get a feel for him on this website, Thinking Allowed. Then go have fun on or Amazon. One of the things I’ve learned from him is to send lovingkindness and compassion into wounds and illness. Notice that when you get a cold, you get mad at it. You stub your toe, you curse it. This is sending hate and anger into the wound. Instead, send lovingkindness into the wound. Send compassion, which means doing the concrete things it needs to relieve suffering. This helps you to relate to the pain, not from the pain.

The next teacher is Pema Chödrön. She teaches a Tibetan practice called tonglen. The basic principle is to breathe in what is hurtful, painful, in yourself or others. Breathe this into your heart, into the depth of your soul. Breathe with your whole body, your skin. Then breathe out into the pain what it needs for healing. I like this practice because it affirms the inner divinity of people. When you breathe a wound or evil into your heart, you are breathing it into God. There, in your heart and God’s heart it is transmuted, healed, transformed into good. Breathing out, into the pain breathes God and our own compassion into the pain, the evil. This helps me to open to my own pain and to not be afraid of another's pain. There are other principles around the practice of tonglen so do go to the website.

Now Pema teaches this practice without using the word God. In my humble opinion, Buddhists talk about God a lot without naming God. They teach us how to love and God is love. To me, the New Testament tells us what to do – love. The Buddhists tell us how to do it.

Post Chemo Day Two

In nursing we have a terminology to mark the days of recovery from surgery. The day of surgery is called, the Day of Surgery. Ah, here is a piece of jargon that clearly says what going on. Say to anyone “Day of Surgery” and they’ll know what you mean. Then we get into the days following surgery. We call them post-op day one, post-op day two, and so forth. What might be a little confusing is on post-op day one, you’ve already been into the surgery-recovery process two days! This may go back to the problem the human mind has with zero. Zero tends to mean nothing or no-thing. But zero can also mean a starting point. When we count down for a rocket lift off, the lift off doesn’t start at one. It starts at zero. Day of surgery is Zero day, as it were. So in our human minds, sometimes we start counting at one, and sometimes we start counting at zero. It can be confusing.

Still, the terminology can be useful. Day of Surgery is an important day with its own unique characteristics and events. You go in for surgery. You get striped down to that silly little gown or huge gown, depending on body size (one size fits none). They put you under. You get cut on. You wake up in recovery. That only happens on Day of Surgery. I think you can extend this paradigm to chemo therapy.

From this point I am speaking mainly from my own very recent experience. I have worked in General Surgery, taking care of patients after their surgery. I have not worked in oncology, taking care of cancer patients, though I have had some training in that as part of my nursing education.

Day of Chemo – you go in. The nurse starts an IV on you, takes you vital signs (pulse, respirations, blood pressure, and temp.) and starts to pump a variety of chemicals, medicines into your body. You sit or lay back in big, fairly comfortable chair for a number of hours while the medicines are pumped in.

On my first Day of Chemo, I knew this going in so I brought school work to read – on Pastoral Theology no less, and a cassette tape to listen to if I liked – David Whyte’s The Soul’s Desire. He has a cool website, great one for the poet seeker in us. I also brought a CD player and Hildegard of Bingen. So I was prepared.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the need for conversation, conversation between me and Teresa – very important – and the need for conversation between me and the nurses who took care of me. So I didn’t get 4 hours of study done but other work, important work was done.

Day of Chemo went really well. I felt great, just maybe a little strange after a good 1000 cc’s of fluid and chemicals pumped into my body, but nothing big. I did work with visualization and relaxation and prayer and things were cool. It was like, is that all there is? Wow.

Then came Post Chemo Day One. I gained seven; yes count them, seven pounds. My legs felt like tree trucks. I called my doc and felt a message on her machine at 5 AM (That’s when I usually get up). As the day progressed I felt worse and worse. My stomach hurt, I was very tired. I did what I could. Doc called back at 11, ordered some Lasix for me, and later that afternoon Teresa was so kind as to drive into Richmond (20 minutes to 30 minutes away, depending on traffic) to get the med for me. I’m glad she could do that. By 3 o’clock I was feeling pretty puny.

Now it is Post Chemo Day Two. I’ve lost eight pounds. The Lasix worked. Doc ordered it PRN, as needed, so I’m not going to take it today to see if one dose is sufficient.

So much of medicine is trail and error. This is a fact of life and as a patient and a nurse, I’ve learned to go with that. Aye, I do wish we could just take a test, get the med and be done with it. Life and health just don’t work that way a lot of the time. Sometimes they do, though, and that’s the confusing part. I think the key thing is to be in relationship with want you are seeking to heal, not just take the med and ignore it.

God knows though, I’ve done a whole lot of ignoring with my disease process. Ignoring it is not all bad. It’s not good for the disease to run your life. The thing is to be in relationship with it in a right and proper way. It does have a place in your life. It’s there in your body. Relate to it with lovingkindness and compassion. Your heart will then feel the way forward for healing. This is easier said than done. I know from experience. It takes practice. Our culture does not teach this. And I am shamed to say my institutional church does not teach this very well. I have yet to hear a sermon about treating illness with compassion and lovingkindness. You can find the teaching in the Episcopal Church if you dig for it. I have, but I had to dig. I got this teaching elsewhere. Then I could see it in my own tradition.

So this morning I’m feeling better, but still a little puny. Hopefully with some more rest I’ll be back up to speed. I find peace though, when I return to this fact that God sustains me and loves me in my puniness. When I rest in that puniness, let go into the puniness, healing comes forth, not just for me, but for the whole world too.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Medical Update - Chemo went well

My apologies to my regular readers. I’ve left you hanging since my last post. It’s been an intense time. I’ve had a case of shingles, which thankfully did resolve nicely since I got on medication right away. This did delay the start of treatment for kidney disease though.

I finally got all my results back from the tests on my heart and lungs. Pulmonary function and my heart are normal. Several years ago I had an echo cardiogram that showed a mildly prolapsed mitral valve. That is not there now. Way cool. I have not had any more episodes of shortness of breath and my endurance and energy is better.

Also, there were still fears and anxieties around the Cytotoxan that I need to work through. I needed to reframe the way I thought about Cytotoxan. As a nurse, I am aware of the serious side effects that may come with Cytotoxan. Cytotoxan also has healing properties (that’s why it is prescribed). I have been able focus on those properties and I have sought to put on the mind of Christ about this whole matter.

Yesterday I had my first treatment and it went very well, thanks be to God. There was no nausea or other reactions. (Phew!) This therapy is truly a process and other side effects may not become evident until later. I have a whole slug of people praying for me, here in Berkeley and the whole seminary and in Boise and elsewhere. I take those prayers into my heart and clam the healing and love that is there. This is something I did two years ago when I was so very sick. Now I can do this at an even deep level. This is the joy of spiritual practice, it does improve with practice!

I’ve added a new link down in the Links of Note section. It’s called Alicia's Story - Cancer, Despair, Hope and Faith. Alicia is a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and is blogging about her journey with cancer. Hers is an amazing story and will worth following.

Peace to you all and be well