The Whole Shebang
Nervous. She appeared nervous. Or perhaps scared. I was wondering what torment brought her into my office when she quietly explained that she was nervous about coming to a holistic doctor. Her family had warned her against it. “What is a holistic doctor, anyway?” the elderly matron asked guardedly, perched nervously on the edge of a chair in my office with one eye on me and one on the door. Her question threw me for a moment and left me at a loss for words. I was reminded of my own period of confusion years ago when the word holistic came into vogue. “Where is the ‘w’?” I’d wondered. Why isn’t it spelled “wholistic”?
Quickly searching my vocabulary for words beginning with “hol”, to my dismay, I came up with the word hologram, a high-tech 3-D illusion. My Lord! Was I practicing (etymologically) a form of illusory medicine? Was I a high-tech shaman? This crisis of being was temporarily dispelled when I gathered up my thoughts and calmly explained what I do (see below). “Well, that is what I would expect of any good doctor,” she exclaimed. Then she added, “Takes a lot of time though, doesn’t it?” We spoke on holism a while longer then turned our attention to her health issues. Upon leaving, she thanked me and announced that she was a convert to holistic health.
“What’s in a name, anyway?” I wondered later that evening. Still perplexed, I consulted my tried-and-true nine-pound micro-print infinitely-detailed Oxford English Dictionary. Therein I was sure to learn how a holistic doctor might be defined. To my shock, I found that, according to this most august arbiter of literary truth, holistic does not exist! Thus betrayed by my beloved OED, I was again at a loss. I read on and succeeded in tracking down the root holo (from the Greek meaning “whole entire,” i.e. treating the whole person.) Examples such as holagogue, meaning “a medicine reputed to expel all morbid humors” and, more disturbingly, holocaust referring to “a sacrifice wholly consumed by fire; a whole burnt offering”. This derivation cast an important light on the word. Reading on, the connection of holo with holy became apparent: Holy comes from halio, meaning free from injury or sin. This refers to that which is inviolate or inviolable and must be preserved whole or intact.
This struck me as a description more fittingly ascribed to a patient than to a doctor. There was a time in human civilization when the priesthood and medicine were inexorably linked. In many “primitive” cultures still today one must demonstrate a certain degree of spiritual and ethical development before becoming a doctor. For example, Tibet, which is acknowledged by the international health community to have the world’s most sophisticated “low-tech” medical system, requires that her doctors complete a religious training prior to practicing medicine.
Why does the exercise of consulting a dictionary leave one feeling somehow hollow? Perhaps because just as the map is not the territory, words can’t do justice to the idea they try to represent. After all, the power in words lies in their derivation, not their definition. “Words are very precious,” an old doctor once told me. “They carry power.” At first I thought that he was referring to spell-casting, but he spoke instead of the relationship between the namer and the named. Adam’s first responsibility, we’re told, was to name all of God’s creation in the garden of Eden. St. Exuprey shed more light on this relationship in his book, The Little Prince, where the fox warns the Little Prince, “If you tame me (read “name me”) then you must take responsibility for me. You must love me.” “Sticks and stones” may, after all, be less damaging than words.
What is in a name? Long ago, individuals did not receive a name until they somehow earned it. Completing a process of initiation, their names had specific meanings. Native Americans were called names like Running Bear or Sitting Bull for reasons more profound than simply parental preference. Closer to home, Peterson, Anderson, Williamson and similar names share the obvious derivation “son of.” These people needed to earn, if you will, their first names in order to be recognized as more than what they inherited at birth. The greatest of all medical doctors through the ages, Hippocrates (from the Greek “hippo” and “krasis”, meaning “he who controls the horses”), was so named because he mastered his soul (anima), which the Greeks represented by the noblest of all animals, the horse. Hippocrates learned to harness his soul passions in the service of his patients and was rewarded with an appropriate name.
“Holistic doctor.” What does this mean? The essence of holistic care is, for me, a healing relationship. The great German poet, Goethe, wrote, “All true knowledge begins with reverence.” This truth must certainly apply to a doctor’s knowledge of a patient. The more reverent, the greater the knowledge. This reverence must be grounded in quiet and diligent understanding.
Now, there’s another curious word — understand. Perhaps the word “understand” means to “stand under” or to cultivate a literally supportive relationship with someone. Therefore, before a true diagnosis or “naming” of a patient can be professed, a relationship endowed with both reverence and understanding must exist between doctor and patient. Not easily done in a 15-minute office visit.
So what did I tell my patient that I do as a holistic doctor? I told her that I strive to minister to a human trinity of body, soul, and spirit. I work at developing this reverence and understanding for a patient on at least three (overlapping) levels in order to embrace the whole person before me.
First I pay attention to the physical body. Here one must humbly remember that it is easier to measure than to know what we are measuring. The care of the physical body demands an understanding of biochemistry and the therapeutic importance of “stuff,” including fluids, foods, minerals, vitamins, amino acids, and medicine. Some typical challenges facing the patient’s physical body might include weight loss, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, allergies, and chronic pain.
Next comes the care of the emotional body too often relegated to psychiatrists by all but the wisest of general doctors. (Recent studies show that 80% of all visits to a general doctor involve psychiatric or soul problems.) Typical soul problems involve striking an emotional balance amidst feelings about relationships, trauma, losses, depression, and anxiety. The soul of a patient requires that the doctor create a safe harbor in which it can play or grieve or imagine feelings in a world of irrationality and fantasy. After some healing is done, the holistic doctor must navigate the patient back to reality in a gentle but clear manner.
Finally, care for the spirit of a person requires of the holistic doctor, above all, humility and the patience to bear witness to an individual’s process of choosing freely, making decisions, commitments, and compromises according to his or her life values.
This is a pretty tall order for a doctor. Remember, despite what they teach us in medical school, “MD” does not stand for “medical deity.” How then does the average holistic doctor embrace this trinity and administer to each type of need? This is challenging especially because, more often than not, each part of the triad is not in harmony with the others.
For example, let’s take ice cream. The physical body craves the sugar hit and the soul likes the feeling, but the spirit has committed to a diet. What to do? The doctor’s role here is that of a guide or a scout who serves by pointing out the options, explaining likely consequences on body, soul, and spirit of decisions that face the patient. However, just as the leader of the expedition (not the scout) decides the route, so too the patient (not the doctor) decides the treatment.
All relationships involve a duet. Therefore, even the best holistic doctors rely on the cooperation of the patient. These doctors “stand under” the patient by talking with, not to, the individual before them. Most importantly, they maintain a deep respect for the individual freedom and responsibility of the whole person whom we doctors appreciatively call our “patient.” (Ever wonder where that word came from)?
BSW © 2000