Curing or Healing

March 1, 2003
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By Ellen Schecter

One crucial obstacle to a more humane relationship between doctor and patient is the imprecise vocabulary of illness - specifically the difference between curing and healing. When doctors cure, they restore our bodies to good health. Trained to investigate, test, operate, and prescribe, they feel gratified.

But this is not healing. The patient experiences illness not only in body, but also in mind and spirit. We yearn for a complete healing, refuah shleimah. Even successful surgery leaves scars - some visible, others not. And in some cases - like mine, where I’ve struggled with two serious, incurable chronic illnesses for almost 30 years - my relationships with doctors and the steps we take toward healing become even more essential. I invite my doctors to go with me beyond the mechanics of disease to the meanings of illness.

We need to teach our doctors that even when they cannot cure us, they can help us heal, and fundamental to that healing is a compassionate, reciprocal doctor-patient partnership. When my doctors realized that I did not hold them personally responsible for my disease, my illness, or its symptoms and treatments, we developed a more abiding trust. I never let them distance themselves from my illness by referring to my body as “it”; and I learned to report essential facts along with anecdotes that spoke vividly of my pain and disability.

It takes work to create a relationship where healing takes place. But as a result, I often find refuah schleimah in the eyes or hands of my physicians and nurses - even at terrible moments. Their words heal: “I’m so sorry this is happening to you.” Or, “Try not to worry; we’ll see this through together.” As do their questions predicated on mutuality: “How do you feel about all this?” Some moments need no words: simple eye contact; smoothing my blankets; touching my hand. Sitting beside my bed makes even a short time spent together seem deliberate, important - healing.

When I encounter doctors who are unwilling to take these small steps, I fire them. Taking a moment to help heal a patient may be riskier than seeking a cure. It requires mutuality - revealing ourselves, reaching deep beneath the white coat, sharing our common humanity. It requires a “we.” The bridge built on these very small moments will, over time, carry healing in both directions.

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Ellen Schecter has published numerous books for children, teachers, and parents, and written and produced many award-winning television series for children and families. Portions of her memoir about her illness, Fierce Joy, can be found on the web at

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