March 20, 2006

Living the Clinical Encounter

By Trina Lion, LAc

The tailor gasped.

"What is it?" My shoulders tightened. I already knew my legs were of uneven length, which is why I needed him to work on my new pants.

His face showed pure bad news.

"Three inches," he said as held the tape measure up.

"That's impossible," I snapped. I hadn't been evaluated in a while, but I knew I didn't have a three-inch gap. My clothes didn't fall that crookedly.

He measured again. "Two and a half."

"There's no way," I shook my head. "It's right here," he said as he shook the tape measure.

We both frowned.

Finally, he said, "What shoes are you wearing?" I hiked my pant legs up.

He gasped again. I had on my favorite chunky shoes, which had monster soles.

"Take them off," he ordered, snapping out the tape measure. I did. The soles varied as much as two inches in some places. I'd had no idea.

"Ah!" the tailor hissed. "Go back," he said, pointing at the mirror.

Thirty minutes later, I was in a shoe store. My pants were in a shopping bag, next to my feet. My head was clear. With new shoes and a new tailor, I would be fine.

It was sad but true. At that time in my life, I felt I could best accommodate my body by altering my clothes. However, as clinical encounters go, this interaction still has many truths: I still get angry when practitioners express shock or surprise upon viewing my body. I still don't enjoy when practitioners, after a brief encounter, assume they have a better understanding of my body than I do. I still get upset when practitioners expect me to listen, but not respond. In this way, my visit to the tailor has larger ramifications.

As my acupuncture education continues, I am continually evaluating my clinical encounters, both in school and in my everyday life. The outcome of an event seems as dependent on my expectations and beliefs as on the literal actions. Moreover, the dynamic does not have to be a conflict, or to be troubling.

* * *

"I'm not very good at this," the student told me, leaning over my leg. The focus of the class was trigger point technique.

"I'm sure you're fine," I hoped out loud. I never enjoyed the muscle twitch or sore aftermath. Still, I did have pain, and for now, she was the "practitioner."

The student manipulated the needle. "Nothing's happening." She looked at her classmates worriedly.

"Try pointing the needle in another direction," someone suggested. She did. Nothing happened.

"I just don't get it," she sighed.

"Try again," I egged her on. She did. Nothing happened. She shook her head. "I can't do it."

"Of course you can," I snapped. "Try compressing more with your other hand." She did. Nothing happened. We went back and forth. I focused every molecule in my body on that muscle. Please, please, twitch. Finally, it did. I cringed.

"Wow," her eyes lit up. "Did you feel that?"

"Yup, that's it," I congratulated her. "You got it."

"That was amazing," she glowed. "Can I do it again?"

"Sure," I shrugged. After all, the next time, it'd be me with the needle.

"Great," she said as she caused a few more muscle jumps. "That's incredible."

"OK," I grimaced. "That's enough."

Her face fell. "You sure?"

"I'm sorry," I said. "I just can't take any more. You did great, though."

"Only with you," she shook her head. "With everyone else, I can't do it."

I got off that table, sore and tired. It's hard, being a patient and a cheerleader. Of course, it's also inappropriate. Still, we are on a quest of healing, a path that cannot be predicted. When that process veers from our expectations, our disappointment can be contagious. Patients, like myself in the trigger-point treatment, may want to please. Or, like myself and the tailor, patients may buck so hard against the authority of the practitioner that the whole relationship is lost. However, throwing a blanket acceptance over the outcome - "it was meant to be" - is no better. Awareness does not mean complacency, whether in the treatment room or in daily life. By owning up to our roles in all of our interactions, we can ensure that we continue to grow.


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