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The Medicine to Heal People's Hearts

by Christian Duncker
Germany

I started practicing Buddhism in 1987 in Ulm, Germany, where I was a medical student working as an extra in a ballet production. I didn't understand what an American dancer was trying to tell me about Buddhism at first, but I felt something positive. I decided to try chanting, and I soon discovered that it was having a profound effect on me. I was a very closed person at the time, and I was surprised to find that chanting gave me a deep sense of joy as well as making me feel more open to myself and others.

I was in my third year at Ulm University studying medicine at this time. I had chosen the medical profession because of positive experiences I had had working in a senior citizens' home where I felt that my efforts to help the residents were rewarded by their acceptance of me as a person. I have since come to understand that my real motivation for wanting to become a doctor was to satisfy a need to be loved by others and that this drive stemmed from a basic sense of insecurity. Through Buddhist practice I learned that I could counter this insecurity by strengthening my own positive energy or life force.

During my first years as a physician at Ulm University Hospital I specialized in hematology and oncology, working primarily in the field of bone marrow transplants and the treatment of adults with leukemia and lymphoma. My Buddhist practice helped me encourage these critically ill patients, as well as myself, and it prevented me from becoming cynical or oblivious to their suffering and needs. An experience I had with a 19-year-old leukemia outpatient named Stefanie was critical for me.

After receiving a transplant of stem cells from her sister, Stefanie developed a serious graft-versus-host disease. I was the physician responsible for her treatment for over a year. This special patient was very dear to me because of her bright, joyful character and her ability to connect with all the people around her. It was like sunshine in our hospital when Stefanie and her sister, Margit, came for their visits, even though Stefanie's condition continued to deteriorate week after week. At one point I thought that if she were to die, I would quit my job and look for something less demanding.

Holding onto Hope

In February 1999, Stefanie was readmitted to hospital. After a monthlong stay, it was clear that she probably would not recover from a fungal pneumonia. In a way, I was relieved when she was placed on a different ward because I was not so deeply affected by her deterioration as I would have been if I had seen her regularly. One day, I met her in a corridor of the hospital as she was being brought back from an X-ray, and I was struck with the gravity of her condition. For the first time in my work as a physician I could not hold back my tears; I simply could not bear to see her suffer so much.

The following day, Stefanie's sister came to say that she and Stefanie missed me and were wondering why I didn't visit. I gathered all the courage I could muster and went to her room after work. She was unable to breathe and talk at the same time, and, suspecting that she would die very soon, I had the desire to tell her about life, eternity and my conviction about Buddhism.

As I spoke with Stefanie, I found myself talking about hope. Almost unable to breathe, she told me, "Yes, that's it. You know, the doctors already gave up on me; I could see it in their faces. But I still have hope. I've always been like that: I never give up." She died peacefully that night. I was the last person to talk to her.

Reflecting on Stefanie's death, I clearly understood that in this special case, all of our medical decisions had been correct. We couldn't have prevented her death. During those days I renewed my determination to work for the recovery of my patients. I realized just how important it was to work as hard as possible for their recovery and to treat them as well as I could. However, there was one thing I was unable to change--each individual's karma or destiny. This realization, coupled with Stefanie's courage in the face of death, helped me continue my practice as a Buddhist and a physician.

Source of Strength

The practice of Buddhism is essential to my work because it gives me the strength, courage and high spirits I need to be a good doctor, especially since working with the critically ill requires a lot of energy. Each patient needs encouragement, and at the end of the day a doctor can feel worn out. My daily Buddhist practice provides a source of life force for such compassionate words and actions.

Dr. Duncker together with his family

Practicing Buddhism alongside the members of the SGI, working for the happiness of others, studying Buddhism and continually renewing my determination to improve myself have prevented me from becoming tired, worn out, pessimistic or cynical like many other physicians. Through chanting and challenging myself in SGI activities I feel that I am able to gain the strength necessary to touch patients' lives and to encourage them even in brief encounters. I pray that they can feel my conviction and hope, the source of which is my Buddhist practice.

When a colleague was offered a position as department head in a different hospital, he chose me to accompany him because he said that I had the ideal social skills needed in our new work. I know that I was able to acquire these skills through my experience of activities and supporting others in the SGI.

I now work as a consultant of internal medicine in Wuppertal in Nordrhein-Westfalen. I have more responsibility for my coworkers and less direct contact with the patients, which I miss. In the future I am planning to establish my own practice, working with severely ill patients, helping people battle cancer and supporting those facing death.

Through my work as a doctor, I am determined to help spread an understanding of Buddhism in Germany, where people still continue to suffer from insecurity and isolation due to the legacy of World War II. I believe that Buddhist practice can show us how to manifest the necessary life force to connect with others by nourishing our compassion, inner strength and joy.

[ Courtesy July 2001 SGI Quarterly ]

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