Let’s face it – lots of genetic counseling is repetitious. Most of us have subconsciously scripted our own version of a counseling session that we follow more rigidly than we like to admit, the inevitable outcome of seeing hundreds of fairly similar patients a year, year in and year out. On particularly busy days, you may even lose track of where you were in the session when a patient asks a tangential question or there is a knock on your door. It can be a slog, a Groundhog Day-like re-playing of the same film with only minor variations.
This repetition stems to some extent from the educational component of genetic counseling, the need to impart complicated biomedical information with the ultimate goal of helping patients making good decisions about their medical care and lives. We want to combine knowledge with emotional guidance so patients can gain wisdom and personal insight. Sometimes, though, as you watch dazed patients stumble out of your office, you start to wonder just how effective or helpful you have been.
On the other hand, there is a zen-like quality to constant repetition of the same act. By focusing strictly on the task at hand you master it through endless repetition. You eventually perform without thinking of the mechanics of performing, and achieve a state of mastery without thought . Chop that wood, carry that water. Brush left, brush right, Karate Kid. This frees the mind, making it receptive to sudden, unanticipated moments of enlightenment – satori, in the language of Zen. With a free mind, you can subconsciously pick up cues from patients’ words, expressions, and postures, and suddenly, you see into the heart and soul of your patient – Wumen’s thunderclap out of a clear blue sky. Ah – this cancer patient is angry because his mother walked out on the family when his father was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer, not because I kept them waiting 15 minutes for the appointment. Look – all the worry left her face when I said she really did not need to have an amniocentesis; she just needed someone in authority to tell her that it was a good decision.
What we really want, though, is for our patients to also have these small satori, those magical moments when their faces light up, their eyes open wide, and everything falls into place for them. These are some of the most rewarding and exciting moments of genetic counseling. Yes, yes, of course – I must tell my sister about my BRCA results to make sure she does not get ovarian cancer. She’s my sister ; I love her even if we are always bickering. You know – I just realized I do not need to have an amniocentesis; for some crazy reason, I was going to do it for my friends.
Repetition is critical to our professional development. In quiet, not-quite-perceptible ways, it builds our confidence, enhances our ability to understand our patients on a deep level, and plows the soil for the seeds of personal growth. For the compassionate bodhisattvas among us – like Jon Weil, June Peters, Luba Djurdjinovic and a few others – thunderclaps are second nature. For the rest of us – well, it’s back to chopping wood and carrying water.