Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Physician sees the spirit's role in healing


Dr. Rachel Remen speaks in Toledo Wednesday.

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She says she was a “different” child.

Never rode a bike. Didn't get dirty.

Born prematurely, the 10th and only successful pregnancy of her 40-year-old mother, she was treated as a fragile child. Her parents worried that she might be retarded, but when she finally began talking at age 3, it was in complete sentences.

“I was never asked to obey,” said Rachel Naomi Remen, who called her parents Gladys and Ray. Instead, they expected her to reason things out.

“That style of being with people where we put together our best perspective is innate for me, and I've carried it with me into medicine.”

A 30-year proponent of the role the spirit plays in health and the recovery from illness, Dr. Remen, 65, speaks in Toledo Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Authors! Authors! series sponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

She was among the first physicians to take a psychological approach to the needs of people with life-threatening illnesses. She co-founded the Commonweal Cancer Help Program that was featured on the acclaimed Bill Moyers' television special, Healing and the Mind. She is director of the Institute for the Study of Health and Illness, and professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.

She has learned to pull back the curtain of medical technology and listen, compassionately, to people's stories. Medicine is a front-row seat in life, said Dr. Remen, who calls herself a “recovering physician.”

Likewise, people who work in medical fields often need to “recover” from their scientific objectivity, and to realize that curing an illness often isn't enough, she said. A serious illness often becomes a spiritual journey.

She speaks from experience.

Coming from a long line of doctors and nurses, Dr. Remen planned to be a physician as a small child. At 15, she was diagnosed with Crohn's disease, a chronic, progressive intestinal condition. She would be dead by 40, she was told.

“None of the doctors around me suggested there might be something such as the will to live, and there might be a way to use it.”

She despaired and was angry. Anger, she said, is a first response. “As a way of life, it's limiting.” But its energy can be channeled into different forms, such as love and creativity.

Years of suffering and eight major surgeries have contributed to her growth. “I've never been cured, but I've become a very different and larger person because of this disease.”

She entered college at 16, and medical school at 20. When her mother visited during her medical internship, she was horrified that her daughter did not have a winter coat.

“I had not known it was winter. I had not been outside the hospital and its underground tunnel systems in over a year,” Dr. Remen later wrote.

She is a cat owner who enjoys treasure hunting in second-hand shops. When she writes, it is between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. She has published three books and dozens of articles and chapters.

Two recent books, My Grandfather's Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging (2000, Riverhead Books) and Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal (1996, Riverhead Books) have been commercial successes. Both are collections of dozens of short essays - personal anecdotes, remembrances, poignant situations with patients and friends - all are experiences from which she has gleaned insights.

“I want to write more about relationships between people and the power of those relationships. And the process by which we become wise,” she said in a telephone interview from her cabin on Mount Tamalpais north of San Francisco.

Healing, she said, is an impulse in every living thing to move toward the full manifestation of its wholeness. “And when you heal a person, you enable them to become more fully whole,” she said. “Some people heal in the weeks before they die.”

In the four decades during which she has practiced, patients have become more empowered, she said. “Their ability to further their own health and well-being has changed; and to be able to live well,” she said. “People have a sense they can go beyond their diagnosis. And that's real power, to be able to go beyond your circumstances.”

A course she developed, The Healer's Art, is taught in 15 medical schools, including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, she said. That would have been unthinkable 30 years ago, when she began writing about mind-body medicine. “I was seen as quite an outsider; a person whose ideas were crazed.”

From caring for thousands of people with terminal illnesses, she has noticed that their relationships often have authenticity. They seem to let go of the ways in which they had changed themselves to win approval, and consequently make it safe for others to be genuine as well, she said.

Her institute runs retreats for doctors to expand their ideas about what it means to be a doctor, and to begin to heal their own wounds. “One of the things I love to do with doctors is get them to talk about the mysteries they have seen.” For example, some people recover who have no business recovering; others don't survive despite all indications that they will.

Does she believe in afterlife?

“It's not what I believe in; it's what I have observed,” she said. “I have observed a lot of mystery.”

Rachel Remen's Wednesday talk is at 7 p.m. in the Great Hall of the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Tickets are $8 and can be purchased at library branches and at the door.

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