My kids have a book I love. It's called Zen Shorts, and it's just that: a series of short stories, each with a Zen message. (Note: we are not particularly religious in general and completely non-Buddhist, in case that matters to anyone.) One of these short stories includes a well-known parable from Zen Buddhism. It goes like this. A young monk and an elderly monk are walking along. They encounter a high-class woman stuck at one side of a big mud pit fretting about how she will get across. The elder monk picks her up, carries her across, and gently puts her down on the other side. She is quite unpleasant to both of them, complaining all the while, and never says a word of thanks. The elder monk walks on silently as he did before. The younger monk ruminates on what happened for the remainder of the afternoon as the two monks continue their journey, marveling at how the woman could be so rude and disrespectful and asking why the elder monk didn't just put her down. Finally the elder monk says, "I put her down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?"
My kids love the book, so we read the story often, and I have a Eureka! moment every time. THAT is how I want to be, like the elder monk. I have to cultivate this Zen thing. No, wait, I know, even better: maybe I'll even BECOME A BUDDHIST!!!
But the sad reality is that I am SOOOO not Zen. I am the young monk. No...worse. I am the anti-Buddha.
I have an extraordinarily hard time letting anything and anyone go. I have a lifelong tendency to accumulate clutter in my house and office--not DSM-qualified hoarding or anything, but real clutter--and in my mind. The sad fact of life as an oncologist is that yes, there are many people we save, and yes, we've come a long way, especially in breast cancer which is my specialty, compared to 10 or 20 years ago, but we still lose a lot of people. I remember the name of every single patient who has ever died in my care--all of them, even my patients in the ICU as an intern--and, in most cases, the names of their spouse and kids and various random facts about them, too. I don't know if this is because I doubt myself and wonder whether I could or should have done something differently that might have saved them. Or if I actually have too much empathy for patients and families. Or if that's even possible. All I know is that I take every death very much to heart. And, as an oncologist, if you're still carrying patients long after you should have put them down, you are in for real trouble.
Although I suspect that most of the readers of this blog are in fields other than oncology where death is fortunately not a regular occurrence, I wonder if and how you put patients down once you have done your job of carrying them across. When you have made mistakes, do you let them go? If you have lost patients, can you put it behind you? And if so, how do you do it? I know we don't have a doctor-patient relationship, but, please, can someone prescribe me a little Zen?