International travel and lecturing affords me many meaningful and serendipity experiences. One such experience occurred recently in Thailand. Three Thai colleagues/friends and a Canadian friend and I visited Wat (temple) Kumpramong.
In addition to the Temple, the area also consists of a Center which functions like a large palliative/hospice care center but with some stark differences from North American cancer care. The Center and Wat are located on a large expanse of land that is very beautiful, peaceful and a far distance from any other towns Punnanakorn district in the province of Sakonnakor, Thailand.
The Center can accommodate 50 patients and their families who are experiencing cancer. No distinction is made between rich and poor. All are welcome and there is no cost. The Temple and Center operate on the generous donations from others. However, family members must stay and provide the care to their loved one. A physician volunteers once or twice a week for medical assessments. Other volunteers also assist at the temple for care and support.
The Center is led by a monk, Pra Ajarn Paponpat Jiradhammo, who himself has experienced cancer. At the time that he fell ill with cancer, he was a practicing engineer. But life after cancer found him researching various healing methods that led him to develop an herbal drink with eleven different ingredients. And this led to his new vocation as a full time monk. He is respectfully called ‘Luang Ta’ by the villagers.
The herbal drink developed by the monk is one of the important interventions at the Center. However, in witnessing this intervention, I was struck by how many other interventions were embedded in this one ritual and at the center as a whole.
Once a week, the monk offers prayers and an inspirational talk of Buddhist beliefs wherein he also offers hope and humor. Following his talk, each patient (or a family member if the patient is too ill) brings their package of herbal mixture developed by the monk and kneels respectfully in front of him. Prayers and a blessing for the herbal preparation is then offered by the monk. The monk also mentions the name of each patient during this ritual.
Afterward, each family takes the herbal preparation and immerses it in boiling water. Once stirred and boiled sufficiently, this drink is administered to the patient several times a day. This ritual is repeated each week.
Subsequent to this ritual, we had the privilege of meeting three families who had been admitted during the past 24 hours. I was curious what they were hoping for during their stay at the Center. All responded unanimously that they desired a “cure”.
Later as we walked about the grounds, we spontaneously encountered other patients and families who had been at the center much longer than a day; some for two weeks, others even two months. Quite different responses were offered by these patients/families about their experience at the center. Amazingly, no one mentioned the desire to be “cured” but rather how they liked the peacefulness of the center, living with other families and helping one another.
One of our Thai colleagues, Dr Somporn, was able to arrange for a discussion with the monk at the end of our visit. During this discussion, I asked this very devoted and dedicated monk if the goal of the center was for “curing” or “healing”? He offered that patients/families come to the center hoping to be cured but leave with healing; peace of mind and letting go of the desire for a cure. Indeed some are cured but the most precious outcome seems to be healing rather than curing. The monk was also quick to offer that the herbal drink was but one aspect of the healing process at the center.
Leaving the Center, I was profoundly touched by what I had witnessed and experienced. This Center combined many interventions that created a beautiful context for healing and softening suffering. Specifically some of the interventions offered were: family support for an ill loved one and for other families; families forming a community of mutual assistance; spiritual wisdom from the head monk; prayers; addressing individual patient’s by name in prayer; and the ritual of praying over the herbal preparation; patients/families boiling the herbal preparation together. This truly was a Center for cancer patients and their families that addressed the biopsychosocial-spiritual needs.
It struck me that this spiritual leader also functioned as a very wise, self-trained, health care professional. He was insightful and knew that when patients and families altered their belief and desire for a cure that their suffering softened and healing began. One is left to wonder if healing became even more precious and cherished than curing as startling as that may be? Is not the ultimate goal of all heath care professionals, especially nurses, to create a context of caring where healing may emerge whether or not a cure happens? I believe so.
What reflection do you have for your own life and practice about healing vs curing?