This blog is the first part of an extended entry about dignity. Today a personal story; next time some additional observations.
There we sit, a bedraggled clutch of patients—waiting for our daily encounter with a robotic radiation apparatus that promises eventual healing from several kinds of cancers. From the look of this group of guys—all of us now retired—you can’t tell the CFO from the astro-physicist, the company vice-president from the teacher or the cement worker from the police chief. We’re all wearing the same hospital gowns, all of us disheveled in our own ways and each of us facing the indignities of our cancers.
Each of us has lost some of our dignity along the way, perhaps starting with the nagging symptoms of then-unknown physical difficulties. During our encounters with medical professionals, we’ve been poked, prodded, jabbed, biopsied and eventually diagnosed with life-threatening diseases. We’re undergoing treatments whose side effects can be embarrassing—incontinence, loss of appetite, fatigue, flatulence.
It’s easy to see why our dignity might have suffered during this process. Perhaps starting with a slight loss of self-respect, we’ve wrestled with the possibility that the worthiness that came alongside our former distinctions, titles or responsibilities has somehow leaked out. That we’re not quite as respect-worthy as we used to be. The open-in-back hospital gowns summarize our condition: We’re vulnerable and it doesn’t feel good.
Good news, though. Another, perhaps-stronger reality comes alongside our imagined loss of self-worth: The presence and work of the entire team at this radiation oncology site. Starting with the receptionists—and including radiation therapists, nurses and doctors—we are treated with dignity at every turn. For them, we are special people.
Each of us grows to understand our welcomed place in what feels like a fellowship of older men. The staff knows each of us by our names and our back stories. They note with encouragement our progress along our daily therapy regimes. Their responses to our questions are held carefully until their careful listening is complete. Each of our concerns is answered fully, with honesty and hope. We find smiles and good cheer in every encounter with these good people.
Facing similar circumstances, we who belong to this fraternity of cancer patients gradually come to respect each other in important ways. We talk about symptoms and hopes, about ways to counter the side effects. Over and over again, we express amazement and gratitude about the medical miracles that are possible through radiation technology. Together we celebrate the completion of one another’s treatment. We welcome newcomers—passing on the knowledge and wisdom we’ve accumulated. Here and there, spiritual comfort finds its way into Gospel witness. Because cancer can be a great unifier, we understand each other intuitively. We are not alone.
In all of these matters, dignity is bestowed on us again. Sometimes connecting to our pre-retirement roles, the respect we receive and share with each other is also based on fundamental values: The worth of each human being; admiration for perseverance in the face of pain; respect for each other’s new expertise in matters of cancer and discovery of fellow patients’ unique personal qualities. If there is a nobility among cancer patients, we’ve found it in the personal care of each staff member and our place in this community of dignity-bringers.
Hospital gowns and bedraggled appearances notwithstanding, we’re worthy of admiration, respect and individual care.
By God’s grace, dignity is being bestowed on us every day.