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  • Writer's pictureAdam O'Neill

Encouragement for Medical Providers: When Healing Evades Us

Doctor caring for sick patient.
The Doctor by Sir Luke Fildes (1891), Public Domain

I still remember the first case that truly stumped me as a clinician; it wasn't long after I started practicing. Months of trial and error had produced no changes in this poor woman's condition. I tried various medications and therapies. We prayed fervently for her healing, and she visited with the elders and pastors at her church. Her faith, by all appearances, was strong. In fact, as I grew more desperate for answers, I found her regularly encouraging and praying for me. After one particularly difficult telehealth session, I closed my laptop and placed my head on the table. I had run out of options and needed to refer to someone else.

A painting by Sir Luke Fildes titled "The Doctor" resonated with me deeply during this time. The hunched posture, concerned and confused look on his face, empty bottle of medicine on the table, and the yet still gravely sick child in front of him felt like a mirror held up to my current medical case.

A small passage in Luke's gospel served as another echo of my emotional condition as a struggling provider:

"As Jesus went, the people pressed around him. And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and though she had spent all her living on physicians, she could not be healed by anyone." (Luke 8:42b-43)

I wondered how difficult it was for the St. Luke to write this sentence. As a physician, did he recall any of his cases that proved too difficult? Was the guilt compounded by the fact that, as medical providers, we know our services cost patients money, and that some, including this woman, spent "all her living on physicians"?

There is seldom a provider who doesn't write of their desire to help patients in their medical entrance essays, and most mean it. Most also have a deeply driven nature, are often "type A," and are used to having the right answer. I imagine this personality profile transcends time. Did it hurt Luke to see that his profession was unable to help this woman, that "she could not be healed by anyone"?

In reflecting on the passage, when the pride of our profession has been sanctified, I think it isn't pain we feel, but hope in the One who provides ultimate healing. Indeed, it is immediately after healing this woman that Luke records Jesus raising a child from the dead. Sickness and even death are subject to Him!

What confidence that must have given our disciple-physician, and what confidence it gives us as providers. When we can't figure out a case, when the suffering of our patients will not abate, we can turn to the one to whom sickness and death bow and trust for his ultimate purposes to be accomplished in our patients' lives and in our own.

What I believe my patient knew that I struggled to understand at the time was that her healing was not held in my hands but in her Savior's. She trusted that he would provide, whether through me, someone else, or in the life to come, her healing. That is what gave her the confidence to pray for me when I ran out of answers because she was sitting at the feet of Jesus with the hem of his garment within reach, and He would heal her in his good and perfect timing.

I can't be sure, but perhaps she also understood that through her struggle, others might be made well, might see Jesus in her suffering, and maybe even her young provider needed to see that his vocation didn't make him God of her life, and that he humbly needed to lay his profession at the feet of Jesus as well. It is only from this posture that we can, in Jesus, proclaim, "Do not fear; only believe, and she will be made well" (v. 50), either in this life or the life to come.

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