Monday, 20 April 2015

On Pain

- Christopher Wang, 2nd Year Medical School Student, University of Toronto

As second year medical students at U of T, we participated in a large, interdisciplinary event called “Pain Week”. While the title seemed rather gruesome at first, it turned out to be a great opportunity to interact with students from various disciplines (pharmacy, nursing, OT, PT…) in order to tackle the important health problem that is chronic pain. As the week progressed, I soon realized that patients’ belief systems often play an important role in how they experience, and therefore cope with, pain. So, throughout the week, I spent a lot of time thinking about how Christianity can bring meaning, and possibly even relief, in the midst of pain. Here are some of my thoughts.

C.S Lewis wrote in his book (conveniently titled “The Problem of Pain”) that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” And indeed, it is unfortunate that, all too often, we turn to God in moments of brokenness but forget about Him in moments of restoration. But to use that as a justification for the immense pain that our patients go through is also, I believe, unfair. Furthermore, if pain is the best way to point people to God, then isn’t our job as healers counterproductive? While I definitely do not have all the answers to these questions, allow me to share 3 steps that have helped me resolve these competing interests as a Christian medical student.
  1. First, I found out that I needed to rediscover what it feels like to be in pain. The medical education system had such a focus on teaching me how to heal that I forgot what it felt like to be broken. I needed to become comfortable around vulnerability again, which I soon realized was something much easier said than done.
  2. The next step, I recognized, was accepting that I could never fully understand the pain that other people were going through. We talk a lot about empathy in class but I firmly believe that empathy is overemphasized in the medical curriculum (perhaps the topic of another blog post). In many circumstances, it is simply impossible to fully understand the pain our patients are going through. It is only by coming to this realization that I was able to set the stage for the final and most important step in dealing with the problem of pain.
  3. As Christians, we believe that though we can never fully understand the pain that another person is going through, we have someone who does. Hebrews 4:15-16 reads “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in times of need.” While not all of our patients will appreciate the comfort that this truth provides, it does not make it any less true. We must acknowledge their suffering, but also be ready when the time is right to direct them towards true restoration. In the meantime, I have found this verse to be incredibly helpful in my own journey through medicine. It has allowed me to look into the eyes of the suffering and see not only pain, but also perseverance, strength and even a subtle hint of hope.