I saw my first patient 20 years ago, and at that time the debate was raging over whether we should call the people who we work with 'patients' or 'clients.' I don't know that there was ever any 'official' decision made, but now we see patients, clients, students, workers, etc. I usually use the term patient, which is mostly out of habit. When you work in a single field for 20 years you can be accused of being 'old school' and old habits die hard.
But I didn't choose to write tonight about semantics.
I was thinking back to my first patient contact 20 years ago because that is when I learned about people who have cancer. When I am struck squarely between the eyes with a proverbial baseball bat I automatically start working from the beginning of my experience to remember what I have done before, seen before, experienced before. My experience is my crutch, like an old man's walking stick.
A former patient's mom emailed me today and told me that the child had cancer. This is in addition to the developmental delays that the family already is working around. She asked me to pray.
Sometimes in my life as an OT I have had people call me and ask me to write a report, or to attend a meeting, or to help obtain a wheelchair. I have had countless small requests, most of which are relatively do-able. But it was in my first experience as an OT that a patient asked me to pray. I can recall praying a bunch of times without being asked, but I think I have only been asked a few times.
Kent Tigges, who was my mentor, told me when I was just 19 years old that it would be very hard to be a good OT and to be agnostic or atheistic at the same time. I had no idea why he said that at the time and I am not sure I had the ability to believe him when he told me this, but I know he was absolutely correct. Kent treated life as though it was OT though, so I don't know if he meant what he said in a strictly or traditionally therapeutic context.
When I was 19 he told me to be ready for the time that a patient asks me the hard questions, like "Why is God doing this?" or "Is my illness some kind of punishment?" or "Do you think I will go to heaven?" About two weeks after he told me to think about my answers to these questions one of his patients asked him directly "Why is God doing this to me? I was a good person and I lived my whole life trying to do the right things. I went to church and I loved my family. Why is this happening to me?" If the patient didn't have cancer I would have thought that I had been set up - but the questions were too contextually appropriate to have been a set up. I will never forget Tigges' answer which flowed as smoothly as anything I have ever heard in my life. I thought for sure that I was about to see the Master in action, but instead he said, "You know, my colleague Chris and I were just talking about this very subject, and I know that he is well prepared to give you an answer that I promise will help." Then he smiled at me, and left me to the discussion.
I still don't know why things happen, and I especially don't know why they happen to certain people. I don't know. I reached back into 20 year old journals tonight to find an impossible answer to this problem. I didn't have answers then and my mentor did not have answers either. We went into scores of homes to work with people in a hospice program and we never found an answer. After his daughter's funeral I sat with him and we cried together and I know at that moment that we didn't have answers. After I received a phone call telling me that he died I sat in stunned silence, waiting for the Universe to provide an answer. I am still waiting.
A primary motivation for my writing is because I wait in anticipation of the person who will read my writing and tell me, "Oh, Chris - don't you understand? This happened because..."
"Prayer helps," someone told me once. When there is so much swirling about it seems like such a simple thing to do. In my small and frail human mind I sometimes wish that people would ask more of me. But I am beginning to understand that perhaps it is the greatest request of all. Paradoxically it is the simplest and greatest thing to be asked to do. Kent knew this, and that is why he told me that a good OT would have a hard time being an agnostic or atheist.
An agnostic or atheistic person might have a hard time coming up with an aswer to that request, but Kent prepared me well. Of course I will pray. I'll ask anyone reading this to pray too. I don't know why sad or bad things happen, but I know that the way we respond to them matters. We can give in to despair or we can open ourselves to faith and hope. Of course I will pray, because faith and hope are my best responses, my best choices, and my best answers to situations that are impossible to understand.