Dr. Karen Wyatt is a physician who focuses on spirituality and applying Integral Medicine concepts to the care of her patients. She is also the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Stories to Heal Loss & Grief, and What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying.
Dr. Wyatt: The first answer is it’s partly in my own awareness of the patient as a whole person. I try to always see the patient, and see every aspect of the patient, when they come to me. That’s reflected in the kinds of questions I ask when I take their history. I ask them what else is happening in their life, what other thoughts they’re having at the time, to understand if their physical symptoms might be tied in to something emotional or spiritual at the same time. A lot of it is the way I approach the patient, and creating a very safe feeling for the patient so they feel comfortable talking to me. A lot of times I don’t have to ask questions, I find that they’re telling me about headaches and then that they’re telling me about how they’re angry at their father and had a falling-out. Sometimes it just naturally happens that they start telling me about issues in their life that are going on.
I always ask about the physical part first, so before we start talking about if it’s coming from a spiritual aspect. I think it’s having the attitude on my part of openness, and acceptance on my part, that seems really helpful. A lot of times it becomes really obvious to them to put all those pieces together and such. I have found that many times emotional or spiritual issues will present as physical symptoms. When we look for things physically nothing shows up in the testing that is done. The sad thing is that that’s where most doctors stop. The patients just need help sometimes to go one step further, to see if there’s something else going on.
Kelly: Along those same lines, how can doctors and other medical workers improve in their approach to healing and death?
Dr. Wyatt: Definitely listen more, because I think that’s one of the biggest problems we have in our medical profession right now. Doctors are under a lot of pressure to see a lot of patients in a short time. So many studies have shown that doctors will interrupt patients after 18 seconds. They’re directing the patient too much to get an answer instead of letting the patient tell the story. Because when they’re telling a story, that’s when the patient will realize other things about how the problem started. The patient doesn’t ever get a chance to talk it out.
Also that a lot of doctors are not open-minded. They’re not educated about other aspects like spiritual and emotional health. They don’t see it as important. In medical school, there’s so much emphasis on science, so a huge percentage of the time is spent reading studies and reading about scientific literature. It’s very hard to change tracks and start thinking philosophically. I don’t think it’s adequate in our education. That’s also true with death and dying. I don’t think doctors get enough education in the process of death and dying, and that’s another reason sometimes doctors don’t bring it up when they should, like when a patient is dealing with a terminal illness.
Kelly: You do personal consultations with people to help guide them through “the healing journey.” What do these consultations entail?
Dr. Wyatt: I no longer have an office practice so I don’t see patients in an office anymore; I do consultations over the phone or Skype. It’s more the listening and talking part. It’s good for people who have already been through a visit to a lot of doctors. They recognize that they might be stuck and they might have trouble moving past something. It’s kind of similar to what I used to do in the office, of trying to understand what’s going on for that person and what’s going on in their lives. Sometimes I have recommendations, like that they start journaling or going for walks, meditating, whatever seems helpful to that person, to find a way to heal or recover. It’s very much about the listening. If anyone is interested they can find me and talk through my site.
Kelly: That’s a great resource. You also volunteered with a hospice, working with the dying. Do you have any favorite memorable or inspiring experiences from that period?
Dr. Wyatt: Yes, we had a large hospice and I worked there for 8 years. I’m on the board of the hospice here, but we hardly have patients. I do have a book, What Really Matters, which is a book of stories about hospice patients. One woman was a gardener, and while she was still healthy enough, she planted a garden of perennials, and she planted a graden so that flowers would bloom every year, so that they would have this amazing garden every year after she died, to remind them of her. She never got to see a single flower blossom from that garden ,so she herself never got to enjoy the garden, but she left it as a gift to her family, so they were able to go out in the graden and see new flowers all the time.
Another woman who had young children, she made a scrapbook of her own life, and she knew that one day her children would want to look at it. They were very young at the time and she knew they wouldn’t remember her. It had highlights of her life and who she was as a person, and they could remember her. I found that very touching also. I’ve known people who have lost parents young, and one of the things they deal with is not being able to deal with that.
Kelly: Those are beautiful stories. What about your other book, A Matter of Life and Death: Stories to Heal Loss & Grief? Could you tell us a bit about it?
Dr. Wyatt: It’s a compilation of stories and poems I wrote over the years as I was tring to get through my own grief from my father’s death. I did a lot of writing to try to help me heal that over the years. I gathered them all together into that book. It shows a gradual progression of my spirituality over the years. I decided to self-publish that book because I shared a few stories with people who were grieving, and they thought it was really helpful to hear about someone else’s story. In the end that’s why I decided to self-publish.
The second book was just released in bookstores. It has stories of hospice patients and along with the stories it has spiritual lessons that I learned from hospice patients. I was working with them while I was dealing with my own grief, so a lot of the spiritual lessons I learned were helping me at the time. They’re kind of tied together in that way.
Kelly: Finally, what advice do you have for SevenPonds readers who may be dealing with a loss?
Dr. Wyatt: One is that there’s not a right or wrong way to grieve. It is a process and it does take time. What I’ve found is that there’s lots of different ways to go through it. You may feel like you make progress and then go backwards, but it’s normal. Ultimately, for me I had to allow my grief to change me. For a long time, I resisted change, and I see people do this, they want to go back to where they were before the loss happened, and I think that resistance is one of the things that restricts us. We need to allow the loss to shape us, and bring something new into our lives. I think that’s the hardest thing to do is to let that happen.
Kelly: Thank you so much, Dr. Wyatt!
Be sure to check out Dr. Wyatt’s website, Creative Healing, for more information on her services and for updates to her blog.