Medical Agape: Honoring Patients, Caregivers and the Concept of Selfless Love

The term Agape can be defined and interpreted as selfless love.  Although the concept of agape has biblical and religious connotations, it has also been invoked by both ancient Greek and modern philosophers as well.   Modern scholar Thomas Jay Oord defined agape as “an intentional response to promote well-being when responding to that which has generated ill-being.”  As we reflect on our many blessings during this holiday season, I began to think about the role caregivers play in the lives of our patients.  “Caregiver” is an all-encompassing term and may include hospital staff, support personnel as well as home health nurses and family.  The job of a caregiver is tireless.  Caregivers give not only their time but give their heart and soul.  To help and support a patient suffering with a chronic disease or terminal illness requires selfless love.  No one understands the role of a caregiver better than a patient.  As I was reflecting on this subject last night, I began relaxing with my online copy of the New York Times and came across a wonderful article from a familiar writer that moved me to tears.  When I was done reading the piece, I understood what agape was all about and realized just how brave and selfless our patients can be when facing terrible disease.

Once again, cancer patient Dr Susan Gubar has amazed me with her moving, insightful and powerful writing.  Once again, because of her, I have been forced to look inward and examine my own attitudes and behaviors.  Once again, I have learned a great deal from a patient I have never met.  Luckily, Dr Gubar has chosen to share her many gifts and her insights about the condition of “being a patient” through her writing.  This week in the New York Times, Dr Gubar published a piece on Caregivers.  Like many patients with debilitating disease, Dr Gubar has had challenges during her treatment that have required assistance from others.  When admitted to the hospital, Dr Gubar and countless other patients are assisted by tireless nurses, nursing assistants, orderlies, unit secretaries, volunteers and other personnel.  Many of these positions are not well paid but are essential to providing excellent patient care.  When patients such as Dr Gubar come into the hospital or are moved to a recovery room or hospital ward after a procedure, they are often lonely, hurting, frightened and confused.  How the caregivers respond can determine the entire quality of the hospital stay and can often ease the pain and suffering associated with disease.  A gentle touch, a soft voice or a song can make the difference between an intolerable night of pain and insomnia and a restful evening in the company of a new friend.

As physicians, we often get caught up in our own schedules and in our own sense of self importance.  We expect certain things to happen behind the scenes on the hospital wards, in the operating rooms, in the office and at the switchboard. Too often, we overlook just how these “little things” (which in reality are NOT little things) impact our patient and their disease.  As providers, we can learn a great many things from the way in which our support staff treat our patients.  When a frightened patient comes back from surgery and a nurses assistant spends hours holding her hand and quietly talking to her through the night to ease her fear and pain–this is medical agape.  This selfless action is often just as important as the skill with which the scalpel was wielded in the operating room.  Everyone has a role to play in the care of the patient.  Sometimes, the most important role is not that of physician.

Patients are significantly impacted by how they are treated by everyone involved in a healthcare system.  From the way the phone is answered, to the way a phlebotomist draws blood to the way in which a nurses assistant helps with a bath–all of these are opportunities to show medical agape.  As we go through our daily routines at work we may not realize that even the most routine job activities may make a huge difference in the lives of our patients–a gentle touch, a short conversation, a smile–all of these may ease pain and suffering, if only for a moment.  I am on call for the holiday weekend.  Initially, I may have grumbled and felt sorry for myself for having to work.  Now, I see it as an opportunity to make a difference in my patients and an opportunity to honor my support staff.  Because of the insights provided to me by Dr Gubar, I am going to try to notice these “little things” more.  I am going to thank the hospital staff for their tireless efforts and I am going to spend more time focusing on providing BOTH outstanding care and selfless love as I make rounds this weekend and in the days, weeks and years to come.

2 responses to “Medical Agape: Honoring Patients, Caregivers and the Concept of Selfless Love

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