To Broken Bodies
Teri Daily, Physician and Priest
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Deliver us From Evil, Including Our Own by John Cobb
Pain and Beauty: Process Theology and the Photography of Giles Duley
Love Made Gritty by Teri Daily
A friend recently told me that he had been affected deeply by the images of broken bodies after the Boston bombing. I, too, had seen similar photos in the days following April 15th. As a physician, I also thought about the violently-injured bodies I had seen in practice—bodies injured accidentally, maliciously, or therapeutically. As happens to almost all physicians in training and practice, the way I processed these images changed over time.
In the beginning, I tried to find things to do physically during a code—put in another IV, intubate (put in a breathing tube), run to the lab, call out orders. Staying busy actually doing something meant I could feel detached from the emotions of it all and focus mainly on the body, the physical aspect. I think that's necessary during a code, but it’s not a good way to live your life as a physician. After the code is over and you're left with the body, that coping mechanism is gone.
Then my patients taught me a valuable lesson over time. In particular, a newborn died while I was on service in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit. The baby showed physical signs of the pretty traumatic course of care she had endured before we took her off the ventilator, and she died in her parents’ arms. Her aunt wasn't able to be there but arrived almost 24 hours later. The baby's body was still in the hospital morgue. I dreaded having to go get the baby's body out of the morgue so that the aunt could see her—to the signs of therapeutic trauma would be added the stiffening of her body, and her nose flattened from the position the morgue had placed her in. I thought this was a bad idea. The social worker and I used humor on our way to the morgue to overcome our discomfort (a standard practice in medicine). But when I took her to the aunt, the aunt peeled back the blankets and said "Oh! She's absolutely beautiful!" She went on to describe to me how her features were derived from various family members. I was convicted on the spot.
That became true so many times. I would try to prepare families for what they might see. But when they came into the room they always saw their child, no matter what the physical damage had been. They always still recognized him or her as their child, as more than the body itself. That began to help me do the same, and so it made it somewhat easier for me to see bodies that had been through so much.
One way subordinates the person to the body, the other the body to the person. Both necessary depending on context. I think the second is what I go to when I see pictures of trauma. The violence itself makes me sick, but less so the injuries.
The most difficult trauma for me to witness as a physician was trauma from physical or sexual abuse. The trauma itself was often evidence that a caregiver, family member, or other adult was unable to see the child as more than a body; there sometimes wasn’t a safe, healthy context in which the child was honored as a whole person.
Add to that an exam and a slate of questions that in and of themselves seemed invasive. But to me they were still more than their bodies, more than the reason they were in my office. Maybe that was redemptive somehow in its own way.
The truth is that bearing witness to broken bodies happens in different ways and in many different places. It’s part of bearing witness to both the fragility and sacredness of life, as well as to the strength of spirit. It’s the priestly role we all play.