Notes from a Healer

Great and Noble Tasks

Brian T. Maurer

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"I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker."  — Helen Keller

The receptionist looked at me when I stepped into the business office to deposit the paperwork in the basket.  “Well,” she asked, “how did it go?  Did that mother have a meltdown in the exam room?”

I nodded my head.  “She was pretty upset.  This is the second time she’s been through this—another colicky baby.  She breastfed her first; she’s an experienced mother.  Somehow she feels as though she should be able to handle her second child the same way.  Only thing is this time round she’s got a toddler tugging at her apron strings, too.”

Our receptionist nodded her head.  “She sounded awful on the phone when she called for advice.  I told her I thought it would be best if she would come in to talk with you.  When she checked in at the window, I could tell that she was on the verge of tears.”

“Yes.  She shed a few—and then some.  Like she said, ‘I’m a German hausfrau.  I should be able to handle all of this.’”

“What did you tell her?”

“Mostly, I let her talk.  She needed to vent.  Then I gave her my spiel about colic—how colicky babies have been around since mothers have been having babies; how we don’t fully understand what causes colic.  We went over soothing techniques that sometimes work.  We reviewed breastfeeding, burping, positioning.  We talked about her diet.  She’s restricted her intake way beyond what’s necessary—not that any restrictions are really necessary.  I tried to reassure her that the baby would eventually get better over the next six to eight weeks.”


“And finally I encouraged her to take advantage of friends to help out.  I told her she needed to get out of the house by herself—go for a walk, let her head air out, have some down time before jumping back into the fray.  Right now she’s exhausted, overtired—the ‘snowed-under mum,’ as our British colleagues would say.”

“So what did she say to that?”

I shrugged my shoulders.  “She’s still not convinced.  She’s berating herself because she thinks she has to do it all, and right now she thinks she’s failing.”

I dropped the chart into the bin and exited to see my next patient, a 9-year-old autistic boy in for his yearly physical exam—a similar encounter in the sense that ultimately, there was little I could do to alter circumstances, to magically change things for the better.

As the evening drew to a close, I retired to my cubicle to finish my charts.  Our receptionist stuck her head through the doorway.

“I just wanted to let you know that that mother with the colicky baby seemed much better when she checked out,” she told me.

I looked up from my desk with questioning eyes.

“I told her to take your advice—find someone to help out.  Sometimes giving a mother permission to do that lifts a huge weight off her shoulders.  She realizes that she doesn’t have to be a supermom—even if she is German.”

We shared a small laugh.  Then she said:  “You know, twenty years ago when I brought my firstborn to see you and I was having similar problems and similar feelings, you told me the same thing—and it really helped.”

I leaned back in my chair.  “I’m amazed that you remembered.  I certainly didn’t.”

“Some things just stay with you, I guess,” she said, gathering the pile of finished charts from my desk.  “Sometimes it’s the little things that turn out to be the most significant.”

I had been feeling rather distraught lately, thinking that I had come to be of little use to my patients in clinical practice.

At that point, those were words that I needed to hear.

About the Author

  • Photo of Brian T. MaurerBrian T. Maurer has practiced pediatric medicine as a Physician Assistant for the past three decades.  As a clinician, he has always gravitated toward the humane aspect in patient care—what he calls the soul of medicine.  Over the past decade, Mr. Maurer has explored the illness narrative as a tool to enhance the education of medical students and cultivate an appreciation for the delivery of humane medical care.  His first book, Patients Are a Virtue, recently reviewed in The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, is a collection of patient vignettes illustrating what Sir William Osler called “the poetry of the commonplace” in clinical medical practice. Interested readers can read more of the author's writings at his website and blog.

  • Published: October 2, 2010