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Collaborative spirituality's role in healthcare

May 30th, 2014

by Kenneth H. Cohn

I entitled this post collaborative spirituality in gratitude to Mariana, a Canyon Ranch instructor, whose goal for our class was that we co-create it, rather than have us take notes on a PowerPoint presentation. For all of us in the class, spirituality represented an individual resonance with something beyond ourselves, something that makes us feel alive in the present moment, and at the same time, transcendent.

Spirituality represents both a connection with a higher power and with all living things. It can arise from a variety of experiences, from worship to being one with nature, from being alone to watching a child look at something that we have taken for granted with awe. This sense of heightened awareness can arise from taking a mindfulness moment to get in touch with our senses and in our response to helplessness, as we transition from asking, "Why is this event happening to me?" to "Why is this happening for me?"

One of the participants asked, "Where is the spirituality in the death of a child?" which reminded all of us that it can be difficult to understand present events in the moment, because awareness may take time to manifest.

As a cancer survivor, I was overwhelmed as it happened, but gained heightened appreciation of living in the present, gratitude for life's beauty and the abundant relationships that gave me strength. My girlfriend, who was at my side, became my wife of more 29 years. At our wedding, my father quipped, "You already have taken the vow of sickness and health." Before modern anti-nausea drugs, I experienced times when I only had the strength to lie in bed in between bouts of vomiting. The realization that I was doing all that I could helped me get over millennia of Jewish guilt.

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The connection of collaborative spirituality to healthcare

The connection to healthcare is that, in times of rapid change like we're experiencing now, the meaning of events may be unclear in the present. Transformation can be a nonlinear, unpredictable, messy experience, requiring faith that we are co-creating a better environment for patients and their families to maintain their health and obtain the services they need. Perhaps that is the reason my mentor, Lee Kaiser, said in "Collaborative Gnosticism," "The solution to the healthcare crisis is not economic, social or political but spiritual, based on abundance, collaboration and sharing."

Collaborative spirituality can inspire others and give them hope. During my fellowship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, my mentors inspired me to cure occasionally and provide comfort and hope always. In retrospect, the SPIKES protocol for conveying upsetting news based on analysis of the setting, perception, invitation, knowledge, empathy and strategy, represents a mindfulness exercise to remind us that patients and their families need more than a check-off-the-box approach for sharing operative findings and the results of a pathology report.

Collaborative spirituality reminds us that out of setbacks and confusion, epiphanies can arise. It reminds me to remain curious and apologize to myself when I hear myself judging others. It is the universe's way of keeping me humble, a constant reminder from my departed mentor, Cornelius Sedgewick, a Massachusetts Lahey Clinic surgeon, "When you think you know everything about an operation or a patient's disease, that's the time to retire, before you hurt someone."

We're all here to learn, and the lessons come in various forms when we're mindful enough to appreciate them. Each of the Blind Men of Indostan came to a different conclusion as he touched a different part of the elephant's body. As Mel Zuckerman, wrote in "The Power of Possibilities," "Things such as love, purpose, connection and meaning cannot be measured, but they are the very foundations of a resilient and motivated life. ... The more you strengthen your spiritual self, the more your journey of wellness can thrive."

Ken is a general surgeon/MBA and CEO of HealthcareCollaboration.com, who works with organizations to engage disgruntled doctors to improve clinical and financial performance.

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