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Lions Roar : July 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2012 73 The Kindest Thing You Can Do BY BARRY BOYCE The Mindful Society “I’VE BEEN WITH PATIENTS ALL MY LIFE,” says Susan Bauer-Wu, associate professor of nursing at Emory University in Atlanta. “Patients are not a special class of people. They’re us. When we become patients, we are experiencing greater pain and greater limitation. We may need to be confined. We lose sleep. Perhaps we can’t eat or walk or talk in the same way. How we respond defines the dif- ference between pain and suffering. Pain is an unpleasant signal. Suffering is how you relate to that signal. It’s the meaning or story you create in your mind in response to it.” Susan Bauer-Wu has indeed been with patients all her life. Her mother was a nurse at New York’s Central Islip State Hospital, a sprawling psychiatric facility on Long Island. Bauer-Wu sometimes even went to work with her mother and shadowed her. She went on to study nursing herself and during her sophomore year in college, when her mother was diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer, she went home to take care of her. From the start, Bauer-Wu’s interest has always been in the patient as much as the illness. Her doctoral study focused on the emerging field of mind-body medicine, primarily because her work with cancer patients impressed on her that the clinical treatments alone did not completely explain how well patients fared with their illness. “I always want to know the whole story,” she says, whether vis- iting with patients in their homes, staying with them in the hospital during lengthy courses of cancer treatment, or teaching them how to use mindfulness to deal more effectively with the limitations caused by illness. Today, Bauer-Wu, author of Leaves Falling Gently: Living Fully With Serious and Life-Limiting Illness through Mindfulness, Com- passion, and Connectedness (New Harbinger, 2011), is one of the foremost clinical researchers looking into the effects of chronic stress on patients with debilitating and life-limiting illness and how mindfulness and compassion practices can help such patients. In addition, she studies how caregivers—both profes- sional caregivers and family members—can more effectively serve their patients or loved ones while maintaining their own equilibrium. Bauer-Wu’s main prescription for working with pain and limitation is to “tune in to your body” and what’s going on with it rather than turn away from it. She says, though, that it’s important to develop sensitivity to the difference between chronic and acute pain. Chronic symptoms are unpleasant sen- sations or bodily experiences that linger for weeks, months, or years. Acute symptoms are physical sensations that come on quickly or increase sharply and reach the height of our pain tolerance. “These,” Bauer-Wu says, “are neither to be tolerated or ignored. They are critical messages that require action,” such as seeking immediate medical attention. By contrast, chronic pain and irritation are the very stuff that mindful awareness can most readily ameliorate, thereby changing the whole way we view being ill or in pain. “Our most common reaction to pain is to resist it, so when someone tells you to turn toward your pain it seems PHOTO©ELAINESANTOSANDJDGIBBS Susan Bauer-Wu volunteering in the Humla region of Nepal. Susan Bauer-Wu