A personal story from Robin Youngson
As a physician I have always been proud of my excellent health. With my 60th birthday looming, I was perfectly fit, strong and healthy. No medications. No hospital admissions. But before a fall, comes pride.
Trouble began when I prolapsed a disc in my back. I was mixing concrete by hand, a strenuous activity. A sudden stab of pain left me unable to move for several minutes. The pain subsided and I finished the job, on hands and knees troweling the wet concrete.
Within 48 hours I had increasing leg pain, numbness and weakness in my knee. I tested my own reflexes: they were absent. I had trouble climbing stairs and couldn’t drive a car. I decided it was time to go to the ER.
The clinical assessment was swift and competent. My own observations were confirmed. A troubling finding was a significant residual bladder volume but I’d had symptoms of an enlarged prostate for a while. Conservative treatment was recommended. I was instructed to return if I had any new bladder or bowel symptoms.
The nerve compression improved rapidly and ten days later I was back at work. My urinary symptoms were getting worse but I guessed that pain, stress and analgesics could do that. On my third day at work I developed acute urinary retention. The spectre of spinal nerve compression and ‘cauda equina syndrome‘ filled my mind. I excused myself from work and, still wearing my scrubs, I limped to the ER to register as a patient once again, imagining the spinal surgery I might need.
Urgent MRI scan confirmed a disc prolapse and L4 nerve root compression but to my relief excluded spinal nerve compression. I was catheterised. It seems my prostatic hypertrophy had caught up with me. I returned to work the same day with a catheter concealed in my underpants.
I shared the story with my hospital colleagues but the telling was more bravado than anything else. The urologists scheduled a day-5 review. In the meantime I was struck down with a virus. I developed fevers, headache and muscle pains. While the prolapsed disc had brought me to my knees, this final illness prostrated me (unconscious pun).
I rose from my sick bed to attend the urology clinic. I didn’t want to risk being stuck with a catheter. The first flow test was inconclusive – I was dehydrated after the illness. I drank nine glasses of water, determined to get a result. As I stood at the flow-meter, trousers around my ankles, my bowels began to loosen and I feared the result of trying to pee. But determined to get a valid urodynamic test and resisting the urge to ‘hold on’ I began to urinate.
The result was a dramatic flow rate – but not of urine. My humiliation was complete. I waddled to the door of the cubicle and quietly called out to the nurse. I explained what had happened, asking for her help and to call my wife from the waiting room. In the course of trying to clean up all the mess, I managed to block the toilet. There seemed no end to the embarrassment.
The clinic nurse and doctor – and my darling wife Meredith – were deeply empathetic, compassionate, and practically helpful. Before long, I was safely dressed in clean clothes and had some semblance of dignity restored. I felt cared for.
Life gives us lessons. This lesson was designed for a wider purpose other than my own humility. Three years ago I quit my job as an anesthesiologist to launch a new worldwide movement to rehumanise healthcare and strengthen compassion and caring.
I have reflected deeply and written widely on issues of kindness, compassion, caring, non-judgment, identity and purpose. And I’ve pondered often on the tension between the ego required to lead a worldwide movement and humility that’s at the centre of compassion.
I was sharing with Meredith my feelings about my ordeals. The two words that came to mind were “wounded” and “humiliation”.
After a thoughtful pause, Meredith recalled a saying, “If you are truly humble, you can never experience humiliation”.
I was powerfully struck with this idea. In the face of adversity, we all search for meaning and here was wisdom being offered.
Now, writing this story, I can see I had always declared my robust health as a virtue, as a source of pride.
But if I’m proud of my own good health, I can never be fully compassionate to my patients.
That was the lesson – for me, and to share with others.
I am a frail human being. Shit happens. My bravado is fading.
I guess now I might be equipped to empathise more deeply with my patients in their own frailty?
Compassion requires us to let go of judgment. To that requirement I can now add humility. Perhaps we all need to learn that lesson the hard way?
There’s a nice postscript to this story of ordeal, perhaps a reward for truly learning the lesson?
My family doctor had only one appointment available: 8.30 the next Monday morning. He referred me to a private surgeon who had a clinic vacancy the very next day. When the surgeon learned how I devote my life, he offered to waive his fees and perform my surgery for nothing. I felt truly humbled.
On leaving the clinic, I checked messages on my iPhone. There was only one: an offer of a locum contract that would help pay the cost of my upcoming hospital stay. I was suddenly overwhelmed with relief and gratitude and I sat in my car, blinking away tears.
The intensity of my feelings revealed to me just how wounded I had been. We tell ourselves, “It’s just a nuisance, it’s not serious, I don’t need to worry, lots of people go through this”. I guess other people could see through the bravado. Admitting to ourselves the threat posed by illness is just one step on the road to humility. I have journeyed.
Feel free to share my lesson.