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Clinical psychologist discusses compassion in medicine

Andrew Thagard | Wednesday, April 7, 2004

In a presentation that included “Far Side” comics, passages from scripture and storytelling to the beat of a drum, psychologist Dominic Vachon lectured on compassion in medicine. The Tuesday presentation, the third in the 10th annual “Mini Medical School Lecture Series,” was titled: “Transcending Suffering: Spirituality and Maintaining Compassion in the Encounter with Human Pain.”Vachon, who trains family practice residency physicians at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center and educates medical students through Indiana University School of Medicine’s Department of Family Medicine, spoke of the importance of remaining passionately concerned for a patient’s wellbeing without becoming emotionally drained in the process.”When you really care about people it’s not an easy thing,” Vachon said. “[But] caring is one of the most powerful forces you can have as an ally. Without [it] you won’t last long [in health care].”Often, Vachon said, health care professionals either care too much or too little – both of which can be detrimental to the caregiver and the patient.By becoming over involved, Vachon explained, a person compromises the autonomy of the individual he is trying to help and suffers a “burn out.” At the same time, caring too little undermines the healing process.”When you don’t care about [a person] on a deeper level people can tell you’re faking it,” he said. “People get better [faster] when you care about them.”Often, however, health care providers try to disengage from their work, in effect temporarily shutting off their feelings during the day and turning them back on at home.”It doesn’t work that well,” Vachon said. “When you turn them back on, you end up processing all you saw that day.”The key, Vachon said, is to take a holistic approach. By paying attention to their own health and wellbeing, working to understand the patient and embracing a spirituality or philosophy of care giving, health care professionals can achieve a successful balance, he said.People can be compassionate without religion and spirituality, Vachon added. But having these allows a person to better understand the root of that compassion and more effectively channel it toward helping others and achieving personal growth.”You can exercise without knowing physiology but if you know a little physiology it can help you exercise more smartly,” he said. “The more you know, the more you can use it to your benefit.”A spirituality of caring can provide insight into God’s awareness of suffering and his involvement in the healing process. It also provides a way of approaching suffering without being “swallowed up” by it, Vachon said.The process, however, takes time, he said, warning people that there’s no such thing as “fast food” spirituality.Vachon received his bachelor’s degree and Master’s of Divinity from Notre Dame. He earned a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Loyola University of Chicago. He is the founder of the Institute for the Support and Study of the Caring Professions, a private consulting practice that offers programs for healthcare organizations.Next week, Dr. Gerardo Gomez, a surgeon and associate professor for the Indiana University School of Medicine, will deliver a presentation on obesity and bariatric surgery in the fourth installment of the “Mini Medical School Lecture Series.” The series is presented by the South Bend Center for Medical Education and sponsored by the Medical Education Foundation.