Nature provides healing for wounds science can't touch

A little bird told me to write this column.

I met this creature on the way to work on Monday, Oct. 7, moments after I discovered that the large grove of trees shading the picnic area between the North and South Hospitals had been cut down to make room for the new South building project. The bird sat silently on the sidewalk, stupefied by the loss of its home. It stayed there shivering while people passed by, then wandered off to hide under a parked car. I went up to my office and cried for the loss of the most natural healing place in the entire Medical Center.

Since then, I have been struck by the number of my colleagues who identify with the bird, wandering aimlessly at lunchtime in search of a place to heal the wounds of the day. We understand that in approving the building project the Board of Trustees was acting on our behalf to make the clinics more accessible to our customers and assure the survival of the Medical Center in the competitive managed care environment. We also understand, however, the importance of mourning our loss and taking steps to make sure our trees were not sacrificed in vain.

The challenge for us now is to quit second-guessing the architects and administrators and to find a way to incorporate our sacred memories into the new facility and create a new healing environment. After all, the building that is designed to be more patient-friendly will also house the new teaching amphitheater where future University medical students will be initiated into the healing arts.

Medicine is changing radically and in the process rediscovering some of its ancient roots, so perhaps what is needed is a healing ritual of initiation for the "new medicine." The groundwork for such an event was laid in early October at the DUMC-sponsored "Integrating Mind, Body and Spirit in Medical Practice" conference, ironically held on the very same weekend that the trees were destroyed. The discussion at the conference centered around the observation that from ancient shamanic traditions to modern psychospiritual therapies, one of the goals of healing has always been to recover parts of the soul that have been lost and restore a sense of wholeness.

The reintroduction of spirit into our industrialized medicine is a delicate process that must be handled with the same care as would be required of the planting of a young tree. Last year at the NIH Office of Alternative Medicine Conference on Research Methodology in Complementary Medicine, I was fortunate to participate in a Tree of Peace Ceremony led by Wayne Jonas, M.D. and a Native American medicine man. The ceremony, which is inclusive of all religious denominations and has previously been performed at the United Nations, involved the ritual planting of a small pine tree behind the new NIH Natcher Building at sunrise with blessing of the four sacred directions and burning of sage for purification. The Duke Cancer Center's Tree of Hope symbolically survived the devastation which occurred nearby, and I suspect there is a space for a Tree of Peace right next to it. It would be better to plant it now and let the healing begin than to wait until the building is completed.

I am reminded of the Lorax from Dr. Seuss who speaks for the trees, warning the Once-ler of the consequences of perpetual "biggering and biggering." After laying waste to the Truffula forest, the remorseful industrialist eventually understands that "the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear. Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.

"Plant a new Truffula. Treat it with care. Give it clean water. And feed it fresh air. Grow a forest. Protect it from axes that hack. Then the Lorax and all of his friends may come back." And then the little bird and the Medical Center employees can find some peace.

We must all claim our responsibility for the future. Catholic theologian Pierre Tielhard de Chardin stated, "It is our duty as men and women to proceed as though limits to our abilities do not exist. We are collaborators in creation."

Dr. Larry Burk is an associate professor in the Department of Radiology.


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