Thursday, July 20, 2006

Burns, Recovery, and Compassion

On my way home from work today, I tuned into NPR and heard a very intense and moving story about military burn victims from the Iraq War being treated for their injuries. Several of the soldiers featured in the story were burned on more than 90% of their bodies, and contrary to expectations, several of those have actually survived. No matter how negatively I feel about the war and its humanitarian (and geopolitical) consequences, these stories of human suffering bring tears to my eyes and occasionally a knot to my stomach, like they did today. Since it would be easy for the reader to click on the link to read and/or listen to the actual story, I don't choose to encapsulate its contents here in this forum.

Aside from the accounts of the soldiers' misfortunes and incredibly painful treatment---some extensive burns require debridement of the charred skin down to a subterranean layer of viable and healthy tissue, exposing thousands of screaming nerve endings---I was extremely touched by the nurses and doctors who were interviewed. One must consider the fact that the staff are working with individuals who are horribly disfigured, often lacking recognizable faces and features. It was explained that pictures of the soldiers before their burns are always hung on the walls around their beds---posing with families and loved ones---to remind the burn unit staff that these are real people with real families, who used to have features that distinguished them and identified them. The supervisors want the staff to know what these men and women really look like, and to treat them from that perspective of wholeness and the recognition of their complete selves.

One nurse described how he has a place along the highway on the way home where he stops to cry, meditate, or scream, so that he can arrive home having released some of the emotions which were generated during the workday. Another describes "cramming" emotions away---a sure recipe for burnout and substance abuse, in my book. Coping mechanisms can sometimes be overwhelmed when such trauma is witnessed, and I can only imagine how a nurse or doctor must feel as he or she debrides an extensive burn, exposing raw nerve endings and tissue. The screams and tears and curses must be powerful and strong. (This is why I hate clinic evenings when I have to give three, four or even five vaccinations to a one-year-old child all at once. The terror and pain in that child's eyes---and the caterwauling screams---are enough to put me over the edge with guilt.)

Such suffering is witnessed by so many around the world---whether parents, children, soldiers, nurses, or the infirm themselves---and I sometimes wonder how we---humanity---carry the weight of such suffering on our collective conscience. Aside from the right or wrong of war, the good and bad things inflicted upon human beings by other humans beings, there are stories of heroism, compassion, and incredible kindness around every corner. This story which beamed to my car across the airwaves today was just one small reminder of one small corner of the drama experienced by a relatively tiny portion of this multicellular organism we call humanity.

Even as I write, at this moment, those burned soldiers dream morphine dreams of blissful forgetfulness while a mother in Beirut mourns her three-year-old killed by a bomb, or an Israeli settler bemoans the ruins of his home, or a homeless man in the city where I work drops his bottle of beer, clutching his chest as a heart attack commences to extinguish his unsung life. And at that same moment, hundreds---perhaps thousands---of children are born into this world as new parents weep with happiness despite the pain which they know their children may endure in the course of a lifetime on this spinning globe.

Those stories opened something in my heart today, and I'm grateful for the moment of reflection and connection to others. These are the moments when one can sometimes get in touch with that collective unconscious of which Carl Jung spoke, that undercurrent of connectivity which binds us all in our shared humanity. Perhaps this story opened my heart as I thought of an old friend undergoing surgery for cancer today, or another friend recently hospitalized with a dangerously high fever induced by a tick-bite, or the daughter of a former boss who suddenly died this week at 33. The drama is multifaceted, and I can choose to send all beings a wish for happiness and wholeness, recovery and hope. Stories can do this to us, and that ability to listen and recognize the suffering and tribulations of others may be the key to cultivating more compassion each day. Compassion for others---an important lesson worth learning again and again.
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