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What do you do when serving others becomes drudgery?

Fam Pract Manag. 2008;15(3):48

Dr. Cayley is associate professor at the Health Augusta Family Medicine Clinic, Eau Claire Family Medicine Residency, University of Wisconsin Department of Family Medicine in Eau Claire, Wis. Author disclosure: nothing to disclose.

“How could one young man have so many medical complaints?” I wondered. After talking about his cough, we'd gone on to his upset stomach, his diarrhea, his hemorrhoids, his eyes and his headache! My hopes for a quick visit had vanished.

Still, it was not the length of the visit that struck me, but the setting. I was in an African prison as part of a medical outreach team that would see nearly 450 patients over two days. With high hopes of serving as many prisoners as possible, we planned to manage the overwhelming need by asking each inmate to focus on one or two chief complaints, but our system was breaking down. On top of this, we had already dealt with flight delays, misunderstandings and an excruciatingly long welcome ceremony. We had come to bring medical care to the prisoners, but our enthusiasm to serve was waning. “They” – the patients, the officials and the airline – were frustrating the plans made by “us” – the altruistic medical team.

Sadly, I realized these feelings were not that different from what I encounter in my “real job” as a family doc in rural Wisconsin. The hassles of patients with endless lists of complaints, last-minute refill requests and expectations that we will solve all their problems can quickly turn idealistic medical service into drudgery.

I have always seen my medical work, at home and overseas, as a way to live out my faith and care for “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40) – the hungry, the sick and the imprisoned. As I pondered the frustrations that go hand in hand with medical service to the needy, I remembered that this call is accompanied by an exhortation to “look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4–7).

When a patient has a home life so chaotic that each visit becomes a catalog of unmet needs – or when an inmate presents with far more medical problems than I can handle – should I be thinking more of my own feelings of helplessness, or should I be thinking of how to serve, humbly, someone facing immense challenges?

In the end, I am not so different from my patients. We all – physician, patient and prisoner – face times of overwhelming need for healing, help or reconciliation. As a physician, I may have been blessed with skills and education that let me help those who are hurting, but that should only increase my sensitivity to the common bond we humans share as those dependent on the care of others.

When those of us who are caregivers reach out to serve those of us who are in need, we must remember that true caring is demonstrated not just by reaching out, but also by the way we reach out: in humility and with grace.


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