Thirty years ago, Bernie Siegel, a physician and assistant professor of surgery at Yale, began to explore the “care” in health care. His investigations led him to found Exceptional Cancer Patients, a form of individual and group therapy designed to help people heal themselves through behavioral changes. As a leader in the mind-body-medicine field, this Brooklyn-born Bernie also sought to redefine what it meant to be a doctor.
“Intuitively, I felt there must be some way I could help the ‘hopeless’ cases by going beyond my role as mechanic, but it took years of difficult growth before I understood how to do so,” he writes in his 1986 book Love, Medicine & Miracles. A number of bestsellers later, Siegel is working on his 10th book.
Since retiring from practice in 1989, Siegel has devoted his time to speaking and writing about patient empowerment, information he delivers with equal doses of humor, spirituality and down-to-earth earnestness. On Friday, April 4, he’s scheduled to speak on “The Art of Healing” at the Sheraton Burlington as part of the Vermont Cancer Center Juckett Distinguished Lecture Series. Seven Days dialed up the doctor at his Connecticut home in advance of his visit.
Seven Days: What is> the art of healing?
BERNIE SIEGEL: I do a lot of work with people and patients’ dreams and drawings. It’s amazing — a much deeper level comes forth in the symbol from the unconscious and even from the body. People will draw their anatomy without knowing what they’re drawing. Something like a stream could be a blood vessel. The other aspect, which is much more important, is the psychological one. If you say, “Draw your treatment,” one person draws it as a gift from God and the other person draws it as hell. Guess who’s going to have more side effects and problems?
Also, when I say the art of healing, it’s learning from survivors. If you go to a doctor’s office and they make a diagnosis, they don’t say, “OK, in order for you to do the best that you can, this is what you have to behave like and act like.” They give you a prescription and say goodbye. What I’ve learned is that there are survival behaviors, there’s an art to healing, and I try to teach people what those qualities are so that if something happens to them, they can still exceed expectations and maybe even get better when nobody gives them hope . . . You need to say to [patients], “What’s going on in your life?” It’s amazing what happens to their disease when they create a new life.
SD: What about patients who are already living full, well-balanced, happy lives? They get sick, too.
BS: I’m laughing, because I always try to say to people, “Don’t try to not die.” The bitterest people in heaven are the vegetarian, meditating joggers. We’re not talking to you about not dying, we’re talking to you about living, and then you may get a benefit of a few extra years.
SD: What do you see as the biggest challenge to healing today?
BS: Parenting is what I call the number-one public-health issue in the world. If you grow up with self-worth and self-esteem, you care for yourself, and that helps keep you healthy. Kids who grow up with love and with touch turn out very differently. The planet would be very different if every child were loved. Look at the headlines. Those are rejected kids who are shooting people, killing people and committing suicide. We need to teach our kids how to take challenges, and we need to learn how to communicate with them, too. I try to get people to live in the moment, not with fear of the future. Doctors are not trained to do that.
SD: Why is that?
BS: In one way, it keeps your power: You tell people when they’re going to die. We’re not trained to deal with feelings, especially with loss. That’s part of what made me who I am today — I couldn’t take it. My parents brought me up to deal with feelings. At medical school, you don’t learn a damn thing about people; you learn about all kinds of diseases. My turmoil led me to listen to patients and begin to help them live.
SD: What’s the reaction of some of your fellow physicians to this approach?
BS: I am much more acceptable today than I was 30 years ago. I was called an explosion hazard for bringing in a tape recorder to play in the operating room. Thirty years ago, if I said, “A sense of humor will help you live longer,” [the response would be], “Where’d you read that? Did you do any research?” Now, there have been studies . . . [and] when the doctor has had cancer or their loved ones have had cancer, oh, boy. Suddenly, they’re living an experience, not a diagnosis. And it’s a gift when you wake up to your mortality and you begin to look at life differently. Death is not the worst outcome.
SD: Getting a procedure or treatment can be terrifying, isolating. How can someone find a sense of humor in situations like that?
BS: Well, I call it being childlike. It’s not offensive humor. A woman was in total panic over her operation, and I spent so much time trying to calm her down, but nothing was working. So we wheeled her into the operating room, and she said, “Thank God all these wonderful people are going to take care of me.” I said, “I’ve worked with these people for years; they’re not wonderful.” She then busted out laughing and we became family.
When you laugh, you can’t be afraid. It just changes your chemistry. Give your doctor a humorous birthday card. They won’t forget you. Decorate your hospital room so that you’ll be seen as an individual and not as “the patient” or “Room 405.”
SD: I know that you have a lot of children and grandchildren. That must help you keep in touch with your childlike side.
BS: Yeah, we’ve lived through all the things we’re talking about. A few months ago, my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. About 40 years ago, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and I know what a mess I was then. Now, I thought, “I’ve learned a lot from working with all the patients. I’m not in the future, I’m in the day. We think about sharing our love and having a nice day and not what’s going to happen.”
I haven’t stopped running support groups for 30 years, and I’ve learned to live the sermon. Truthfully, there’s more life in those groups than there is outside. There’s humor in the room, there’s joy in the room, and, yeah, there’s loss and death, but I’ve learned. The greatest gift is, I’m not afraid of a damn thing. I’ve been with people who’ve been through it all.
SD: Does this tie into your new book project?
BS: The one that we’re working on now is called Faith, Hope and Joy, and it’s filled with stories from people who’ve had cancer and then, at the end of each story, I put in my reflections. That will be published next year.
SD: What’s it like to speak in the Burlington area?
BS: I’ve been up there a lot. The smaller the community, the better the care and the survival statistics. In a smaller town like Burlington, you’re more likely to be known as a person.
"The Art of Healing" with Bernie Siegel, MD. April 4, Sheraton Burlington Conference Center, South Burlington, 7 p.m. Admission is free but tickets are required; call 847-3919 or visit http://www.vermontcancer.org. More info, http://www.berniesiegelmd.com.