Humiliation, humbleness and compassion

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.

18 Responses to “Humiliation, humbleness and compassion”

  1. Sandra says:

    It’s so disempowering being ‘on the other side’ of health care, but also brings incredible insight into how patients and relatives feel and can only help health professionals improve their practice imho,

    I’ve recently spent many hours and days visiting my elderly dad in an NHS hospital, and lately in a nursing home. Both were insightful into the differences in the behaviour and compassion of carers. The communication processes in the hospital were appalling, and it took all my resolve to stand up for dad.

    Sadly he passed away last Monday, but at that stage he’d been in the most amazing nursing home for almost five weeks, and been surrounded by carers, nurses and doctors whose care was exemplary. And he died with his four daughters and wife by his side – we’d been welcomed to stay with him 24/7. I cannot begin to say how much this mattered to me, and what a difference it made and will always make, to the memory of his passing.

    I guess it’s not about funding, it’s about how patients and their relatives are treated – with respect and compassion. Thank you so much for all the work you are doing Robin, I wish we could take it to the ‘powers that be’ in England and ensure that each person working here takes it on board.

    Arohanui and hope you continue to feel better.

    • Kathy Torpie says:


      I am sorry for the loss of your Dad, but so glad to hear that his last days were spent surrounded by compassionate love and care. You are SO right when you say, “I guess it’s not about funding, it’s about how patients and their relatives are treated – with respect and compassion”!!

      Best wishes,
      Kathy Torpie

    • Robin says:

      Dear Sandra
      Thanks for sharing your story and sorry for your loss – the contrast between your experiences in the hospital and the nursing home is telling. It sounds like your Dad had a peaceful death, surrounded by loved ones… all too hard to achieve in the hospital setting. I appreciate your kind words and encouragement

  2. Gail MacKean says:

    Your elegant blog reminds me of a conversation I had a number of years back now with my then 15 year old son’s paediatric surgeon post GI surgery. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. My husband and I were upset, not about the complications, but about how some of the residents had treated our son and us. Not listening to our son as he tried to explain to them that he was in a lot of pain, trying to tell them that something ‘was not right’. Not listening to us when we tried to advocate for our son, as he had told us he wasn’t going to tell them about his pain any more as they weren’t listening to him.

    The paediatric surgeon apologized for his residents’ behaviour, saying that they had not yet learned humility. Humility is I agree a rare quality that this lovely man and skilled surgeon exemplified.

    Thank you for your honesty and courage Robin. I am glad that you are back to good health.

    Warm regards,

  3. Julie Dixon says:

    Hi Robin,

    Thank you so much for sharing. Despite your trouble, you chose to see it as a learning experience – and so it is inspirational. Managing our ego is something to be conscious of every day, because it always wants attention. Thank you for living your truth and sharing the reality of doing so.


  4. Jon Bowra says:

    Hi Robin, Sorry to hear of your struggles, but what another leg-up into honouring humbleness and truly then engaging with soulful compassion. Hope you are feeling better, and being compassionate to yourself. Greetings from England. Very Best Wishes, Jon Bowra

  5. Kathy Torpie says:

    If ever there was a story told where a physician stepped (or limped) away from the pedestal and clearly announced his common humanity with those he serves, this is it! We all hurt when we are ill. We’re all afraid at times. And we all shit. It is brave of you as a doctor to share so vulnerably. I’m sorry for the physical and emotional suffering you endured.

  6. Mary Freer says:

    Dear Robin, so pleased you have recovered. Your account reminded me of the year I was diagnosed with RA. The terrible reality that I was not in charge of every outcome related to my health. I recalled the sadness, the anger and the tears. But oh what lessons, the treasure of deeply connecting to our own fragility. The joy of seeing the universe catch us as we tumble. Just beautiful.
    With love Mary
    ps so glad you have darling Meredith.

  7. ilene says:

    Robin, As always, thank you for sharing. And what a gift you gave those who were able and willing to help and by allowing them to be part of this journey with you.

  8. Wendy Leebov says:

    What a heart-wrenching ordeal! I’m so glad you’re on the mend and very grateful that you shared your story and and your and Meredith’s powerful insights. Bless your heart!

  9. Linda Baker says:

    Bless you Robin. Its always SO interesting to be on the other side of the fence as it were. Seeing the whole experience from another perspective only serves to remind you how important your work is …and then you were gifted all this ease and grace in your treatment.
    I wish you an enlightened recovery and much love to you and Meredith. Thanks for sharing.
    Linda :0)

  10. Te Aniwa Tutara says:

    I started reading, thinking about Chloe and that first experience you mentioned years ago. But this story, brilliantly told and frighteningly real, brings home the issues of being a patient. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Sue Macdonald says:

    As always, honest, thought provoking and straight to the heart – helping to illuninte the experience of a patient and a practitioner in those shoes. I hope you are on route to full recovery.

    • Robin says:

      Thanks to everyone who commented with kind wishes for my recovery 🙂
      I am back to good health and one day I will write about the surprising aspects of that healing journey.

  12. Sue Spencer says:

    thank you for sharing this experience, it takes courage to allow people to see our vulnerabilities… Thanks Robin keep spreading the word. Your work helped me change careers let’s help save health care..

  13. Helen King says:

    Thank you for sharing in the hope of informing others as always Robin

  14. John McBurney says:

    Dear Robin,

    I am so sorry to hear of your troubles, but grateful for your sharing them. As the Buddha said, attachment and aversion are at the root of all human suffering, and I struggle with this daily. I hope you are on the mend now! Your experiences and insight inspire us all.


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