February 15, 2006

People Who Take Care

I received this poem today through Finding Meaning in Medicine, a program run through Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen. I found it very moving, along with the thoughts of the person who posted it named Martina Nicholson.

People Who Take Care

People who take care of people
get paid less than anybody
people who take care of people
are not worth much
except to people who are
sick, old, helpless, and poor
people who take care of people
are not important to most other people
are not respected by many other people
come and go without much fuss
unless they don’t show up
when needed
people who make more money
tell them what to do
never get shit on their hands
never mop vomit or wipe tears
don’t stand in danger
of having plates thrown at them
sharing every cold
observing agonies
they cannot tell at home
people who take care of people
have a secret
that sees them through the double shift
that moves with them from room to room
that keeps them on the floor
sometimes they fill a hollow
no one else can fill
sometimes through the shit
and blood and tears
they go to a beautiful place, somewhere
those clean important people
have never been.

Martina wrote: This poem grips me. I was surprised that some people did not like it, were "bummed out" by it, considered it a "downer", and not appropriate to share in the physicians' listserve. So what is it about this poem that is so hard for people to accept? To me it is true that the caretakers are poorly paid. And that our society has not valued the work of the caretakers. And yet, more of us are going into medicine, and more of us are aware that the work we do, this humble work, is very holy; perhaps the holiest work there is. And so we are people with unclean hands, with hands blessed with body fluids, and not in any glamorous way. And yet, we are blessed by the work. And there is some gift in the work that takes us to the beautiful place, the heavenly place, where the sacred is recognized.
I think a little about mothering and nurturing, and compassion. I think some of the womanly qualities of care-giving are being added into the mix of doctoring, as well as nursing. We are realizing there is a jigsaw puzzle of healthcare with all of us in it; and all of us important in the team of care-givers and compassionate community-builders who together make up the circle around someone who is sick, or frail and elderly. So this poem is a very interesting conciousness-raiser about these thoughts. And I guess I want to say "I love you" to everyone who wants to be standing in this circle with the body fluids and effluents on our hands and in our noses, and feels still that this is holy work. I want to welcome us to the brotherhood and sisterhood in this work, and to the feeling of sharing it together. Which is hard to do, because we have almost never used the kind of language which would help to define this. We talk about the blood counts and the technical lab values, but not the holiness. We forget to mention the sacramentality and wholeness it gives us. If we lived in a pre-technological culture, it would not be so hard to talk with normal words about the holiness of our work.
So I guess I am lucky for the time I spent in the Peace Corps, and in traveling, so that I could step away from the strictures of the technological empirical bindings. And say hello, whether you are a patient or a caretaker, because in the field in which we are standing, we are sharing something that feels very precious to each of us. It is not hierarchical, and it is extremely human. Bless you. Amen.”

Amen Martina. Amen.