Back to Basics – Insights for Women Healers

American women in medicine

This is a powerful and touching story from Rachel Naomi Remen, taken from when she talked with a group of American women doctors about treating cancer patients.

” In the discussion after the talk, an internist commented that she would find this work difficult. She had avoided caring for people with cancer because a certain percentage of them would die and she found it upsetting to care for dying patients. “I hate it when I’ve run out of treatments, when there is nothing more I can do,” she confessed.
Others in the group nodded their agreement.

I asked them when they first became uncomfortable in these situations. The women were surprised to notice that they had not been as uncomfortable before medical school. As the discussion went on, it became clearer that we were more uncomfortable in these situations as doctors than as women.

As women, we knew there was something simple and natural in just being there, together. Slowly some insights emerged.

Women have always been present at these times, at death and birth and in many of the other transitions in life. Women have gathered at the transitions, as comforters and companions, as witnesses, to mark the importance of the moment.

One of the physicians talked about caring for her dying mother when she was nineteen years old. She had expected a great deal less of herself then. At first she had driven her mother to her doctor’s appointments, shopped for food, and run errands. As her mother grew weaker, she had prepared tempting meals and cleaned the house. When her mother stopped eating, she had listened to her and read to her for hours. When her mother slipped into coma, she had changed her sheets, bathed her, and rubbed her back with lotion. There always seemed to be something more to do. A way to care. These ways became simpler and simpler. “In the end,” she told us, “I just held her and sang.”

There was a long, thoughtful silence. Then one of the older women said that she too had tended to avoid situations when there were no treatments left. She had felt powerless.

But she saw now that even when there was nothing left to do medically, there were still other things she could say or do that might matter. Kind things. Ways she could still be of help. She had simply forgotten. Her voice wavered slightly. I looked at her more closely. This tough and competent sixty-year-old surgeon had tears in her eyes. It was quite amazing.”*

May we never forget the heart and soul we share with others, no matter where they are on their life journey. Be there and care.


*Remen, Rachel Naomi. Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal, 10th Anniversary Edition (pp. 43-45). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.