Sweet, Slow Medicine

OndrikSeedlings

David Ondrik, Seedlings, from the Arid Harvests series

I recently read Victoria Sweet’s 2017 book, Slow Medicine: The Way to Healing. Sweet is an Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California in San Francisco, and also has a Ph.D. in history. She practiced medicine for over twenty years at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, and is a storyteller skilled at bridging medicine and the humanities. She explores the multitude of reasons people seek doctors to sustain them—not just to fix their ailments—and argues that encouraging and allowing doctors to slow down can benefit everyone: doctors, nurses, and patients alike.

“Anything that contributes to healing power should be employed; anything that takes away from it should be abandoned,” Sweet writes. How can contemporary medicine help people to heal in the least damaging way possible? By tending them s-l-o-w-l-y, is the suggestion. This doesn’t mean that medicine should give up moving quickly; rather, Sweet asserts that Fast Medicine and Slow Medicine work best together, alternating as needed. When you’re having a heart attack, you want everybody working at a clip! But when the heart attack is over, it’s time to recover, to heal and address prevention of future heart attacks. This is the time to employ slow medicine, to ask how a patient wants their life to look going forward, and what the patient can do to help their life move in that direction. How can their doctor support them in this important work? Slow medicine is partly about a doctor listening to and observing a patient to learn the areas in which the patient can be empowered.

Although Reiki isn’t mentioned in Slow Medicine, the concept of chi is referenced a few times—Sweet laments its depletion in weary medical interns. Of course, I was thinking about Reiki as I read this book, and how the very particular slow-listening of Reiki practice can serve as a powerful accompaniment to the rigors of modern fast medicine.

Sweet also writes at length about Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century Benedictine nun who emphasized the concept of viriditas or “greenness,” a metaphor for life force, and spiritual and physical health. (Sweet’s PhD in history focused on Bingen and pre-modern medicine.) She says the implications of Bingen’s idea, “which for me was revolutionary, [was] that as a doctor I should be not only a mechanic of the body, looking for what is broken and trying to fix it, but also a gardener of the body, nourishing viriditas, and removing what is in its way.”

Sweet does a great job of expanding this notion of viriditas beyond the individual patient, to the organizational level. What does a healthy health care system look like? What nourishes the garden of health care so that it can provide the right services at the right time, and what stands in the way of hospitals and doctors truly serving the people? I found myself thinking in new ways about the health care (eco) system.

I have associated viriditas with my own Reiki practice; I invite the Universal Life Force that nourishes everything to restore balance in myself, and in those that I treat. Reiki flows as the individual is able to receive, always gently opening the recipient to Source, however that might appear for them. I believe that Reiki practice is naturally and deeply aligned with Slow Medicine, “where relationship is key and the theme is attention, quietness, openness.”

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