I have written before about the courage it takes to be a practitioner as we prepare to confront the unknown in each new patient we meet (see my blog of 25 April 2011 on The unknowability of another human being). I am preparing myself to do just that this week when I meet a new patient for the first time.
It will be up to me to ensure that I conduct this meeting in such a way that it ends with my patient feeling that I have already helped her in some way. It should also leave me feeling, not that I must “know the patient’s element”, as though that is the be-all and end-all of this initial interaction, but that I know enough about her to make her feel happy to come back a second time.
Of course this knowledge, and all the other little bits of knowledge I will gain each time I meet her, will eventually together point me towards one element, I hope, but even if I feel confident about which element early on, that alone will never be sufficient. Just deciding on an element, however correctly we may make our diagnosis, only does so much, unless we add to it that deeper level of understanding, that “soul to soul” bit, which will give to our treatment its special flavour. And we must never forget that we can start off on what we eventually find is not the right element and yet help our patients at a deep level through our empathy with them.
Above all, I must be curious. Perhaps I am fortunate that I have always been fascinated by glimpses of other people’s lives. If I am amongst a group of people, what I most enjoy is sitting back, unobserved, and watching how they interact with one another. These interactions are endlessly fascinating, and, for a five element acupuncturist, endlessly instructive. I must bring this curiosity with me as the most important gift I will be bringing to my new patient. I need to gather all those snippets she will tell me about her loves, her longings and her disappointments, and use them to start building up a picture of her life and how she lives it now and will hope to be living it better in the future if the treatment for which she has approached me is to help her. And then I will need to look deeply into myself and examine how what she has told me, and the way in which she told me this, points me in the direction of one element.
I have learnt over the years not to be too hard on myself, and not to allow any dissatisfaction I may feel about the way I conduct this first encounter to affect me too deeply. I can only do the best I can at the time, and if I feel that I have somehow failed my patient in some way by not quite adjusting my approach sensitively enough, then there is always the next time in which to correct this. We must never ask too much of ourselves in this very delicate business of our engagement with our patients. As long as they feel we care about them, they will always come back a next time and give us another chance to get things a little more right.