If you’ve ever been a patient (and seriously, by now, who hasn’t?), you know that the medical community has a language all its own. But it’s not just the -omas, -itises, and -opathies. It’s also in the use of some everyday words that remain in use in charmingly old-fashioned ways, reminding us of an early time of house calls, long hand, a deliberate and artful science.
It was decades ago when, as a newly minted cardiac nurse, I first read in a veteran colleague’s nurse’s note that she “appreciated” a heart murmur. Everything was new and I was eager to learn, so I was as up for interesting findings as anyone, but was it ok to actually write this in the chart, I wondered? It seemed in poor form to mention how psyched you were to have found something. I soon learned that to “appreciate” a finding in your assessment did not mean that you were grateful for it, but rather only that you had noticed it, its connotation implying also a certain thoughtfulness, an awareness of its significance, almost a reverence for its existence.
It is the same with the marvelous “exquisite”: delicate, extraordinarily beautiful, suggestive of unusual value. In the clinic, a healer might, even now, make note of an “exquisite tenderness”, a severe pain that is evoked when you touch a part of someone even very gently, even just the littlest bit. The kind of sensitivity that, if you were the wounded one, was what told you that you had better go in and get someone else to check it, that convinced you that you could not ignore it, that assured you that you could not fix this yourself. The pain that suggested that, you might realize with dread, it was probably going to hurt a lot to explore, and probably even more to make it better.
It seems to me that many of us have places in which a healer might appreciate exquisite tenderness. If we are very stoic and guarded, we may hide those places from everyone, especially if we have been doing it a very long time, and we are very good at it. On the other hand, if we have what we like to euphemistically call a “low pain tolerance” (as if that is a thing), if we are a little too sensitive, and tend to wear our heart on our sleeve, then probably everyone knows not to touch us there. They know that even when they get close to that spot, we yelp in pain, we pull away sharply, or –if it is has been a very long day, or we are exhausted because the damn hot flashes are keeping us up at night– we might even lash out.
Maybe exquisite tenderness, even outside of the clinic, is there to tell us that what is underneath is, in fact, the most delicate, beautiful, and of unusual value, even if it will require some healing, even if it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Maybe if we can find a way to thoughtfully notice that kind of pain, to appreciate it, with an awareness of its significance a reverence for its existence, we might even find that we are grateful.