Every so often we get to meet with someone whose work has inspired us. This happened for me this week at the Education Centre, St Luke's Home, Cork when I met Dr Michael Kearney at a workshop entitled "Learning to Breathe underwater: A self-awareness based model of caring for self while caring for others." Michael was just as I had expected him to be: calm, gentle, deep.
Michael Kearney has contributed enormously to the world of palliative medicine through his holistic and expansive sense of care that attends to the whole person. His early years at Our Lady's Hospice in Harold's Cross, Dublin and St Christopher's Hospice London inspired Kearney to write about his experiences of spiritual angst and soul pain as he met it in those who were terminally ill. His publication of "Mortally wounded. Stories of Soul Pain, Death and Healing" has inspired countless practitioners and therapists in palliative care. A graduate of University College Cork, Michael Kearney is currently Medical Director of Palliative Services at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, USA.
At the workshop at Northridge House, St Luke's Home Kearney used the image of a möbius strip to illustrate the seamless continuity between our inner and outer worlds. The outside becomes the inside and vice versa. Kearney's thesis is that self-care and clinical practice are joined together in a seamless whole: or they should be!
Working in a healthcare environment brings us in daily contact with high emotion, stressful situations and above all into the close range of deep pain. Coping in such an environment is demanding and leaves most of us exhausted. The traditional models of coping usually mean we erect protective barriers around ourselves that are hard to penetrate. We become detached, distant and unable to be emotional available to those who are in pain. We get through the day and come up for air when we are home. The result is that those in deep pain feel that they meet an emotional wall that can be characterised by a white coat, a clipboard, a clerical collar, a medical chart, a large desk diary and so forth. In fact it can be anything that we use as a prop to avoid being available to someone who needs us to hear what they are really saying. Before I have an avalanche of complaint from those who wear a uniform let me be clear that there is nothing wrong with any of the things I have just listed: it is how the person using or wearing them is. Put simply, if we develop a high level of self-awareness we are then able to come close to those in pain. And this is the learning to breathe underwater bit: the pain that we might have avoided in the past now gives us oxygen. It allows us to remain emotionally available even in the most stressful and painful situations and for it to be regenerative, fulfilling and healing.
This workshop was co-sponsored by the Irish Hospice Foundation and is part of the growing reputation of the Education Centre of St Luke's Home under the direction of Bruce Pierce to contribute to the care of many.