I was working in the office of a Hindu physician, many of whose patients were from south/east Asia. I felt out of place until I saw a patient who was much like me: white, Christian, and Southern. She was applying for federal disability income and had a long story culminating in her current deep poverty. She cried as she said "I'm indigent," but dried her tears as she repeatedly professed faith in God's will for her.
If my preceptor had seen this patient, the patient would not have gotten so far as to mention God's will. Because my preceptor is adept at getting clinical information quickly, she probably would have listened to a few sentences of the patient's spiritual situation, would have nodded and produced a true but not supernatural platitude in a tone of voice implying closure, and asked another question about the patient's disability. Because I I know the truth of God's providence and the ultimate purpose of this life, I could nod with real understanding and begin to pray earnestly for this poor woman.
I love it when cultural competence, a humanities buzzword, actually refers to cultures to which I belong. In other words, I love it when cultural competence is something I already have, instead of something I woefully lack because I am not brown and, alas, something I will probably never acquire because I am not a liberal.
But this experience goes beyond, "I'm so glad I am a Christian and was there for a Christian patient."
As this woman told me her story, I became enveloped in a greater and greater awe. I couldn't properly express what was going on until I finished G.K. Chesterton's The Ball and the Cross just a few days ago. Chesterton, who embodies vibrant Catholic culture, draws sharp attention to the doctrine of man as imago Dei in this particular book. For instance:
...a thunderbolt struck [Michael's] soul. A man, a heavy, ordinary man, with a composed indifferent face, and a prosaic sort of uniform, with a row of buttons, blocked his way.... He...let his mind float in endless felicity about the man. He thought how nice it would be if he had to live up in that gallery with that one man for ever. He thought how he would luxuriate in the nameless shades of this man's soul and then hear with an endless excitement about the nameless shades of the souls of all his aunts and uncles. A moment before he had been dying alone. Now he was living in the same world with a man; an inexhaustible ecstasy. In the confused colour and music of his new paradise, Michael heard only in a faint and distant fashion some remarks that this beautiful solid man seemed to be making to him....Michael realised that the image of God in nickel buttons was asking him how he had come there.This woman was a thunderbolt to my soul. She was exteriorly completely ordinary, like Michael's man in nickel buttons. Some would even find her repulsive. But in that exam room as I half-stupidly made notes on her disability form, I was lost in the extraordinary eternalness of her soul. ("You have never met a mere mortal," C.S. Lewis said. Only "immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.")
Another Chesterton excerpt (shorter this time). Here MacIan, one of the main characters, points to a tipsy peasant and says to his companion:
"Oh, you have long words and I have long words; and I talk of every man being the image of God; and you talk of every man being a citizen and enlightened enough to govern. But if every man typifies God, there is God."I love medicine! The sense of serving Christ is not always so palpable, but it is always real. I'm sure a vibrant faith makes every occupation better, but medicine seems particularly enriched.
God placed the two of us in that exam room for each other for reasons beyond preceptorship credit and disability app completion. She saw me because it was good that someone listen to her with an understanding that God's will and his mercy are real and potent. I saw her because she was a clear consolation and a reminder of my vocation. Gloria Tibi, Domine!
Upshot: it's good to bring a vibrantly Catholic worldview into the exam room. Patients have dignity that way, their immortal souls aren't as forgettable or foreign, and the workday can become miraculous at the drop of a hat.