Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

Returning to Medicine of the Heart During a Pandemic

"Heart Meditation," original painting by the author. Copyright by the author.


How can we practice the kind of medicine that we so desperately need right now? Perhaps it is time to return to a medicine of the heart and of the soul.

In these times, we were already bombarded by so much information every moment of our waking, technologically-connected lives. We were already functioning at or above our max as we struggled to get through our days, processing people through the medical system and its ever-growing demands of protocol functioning. We need to be good, evidence-based technicians in our jobs and we need to pay attention to best practices—but is this all we are called to be—applied protocol technicians?


In these times, we were already overwhelmed, how are we to now deal with the global pandemic of COVID-19? We can think of burnout as a form of what people through the ages have thought of as soul loss—loss of vitality, meaning, and purpose. It is only through reconnecting with our hearts and souls that we will be able to get through this together.



This word, “together,” it is the very thing that we are now being told we are not supposed to be. We hear the mantra power words of “isolation,” “quarantine,” and “social distancing.” How are we supposed to be together during this trying time? We know, in our hearts and souls, but also from scientific research, that social isolation is deadly and that social connections promote health, and yet, here we are. Here we are. We are afraid of the “other” as a source of infection. Others have been telling us to be afraid of the “other,” for many different reasons already, and now we have this. COVID-19.


The best practice of the heart

The mind, with its love of information, of separation, of control may reach its limit someday. Maybe that is another facet of burnout—when the thing that we use to live our lives and solve our problems is not working the way it used to. In addiction recovery terms, they call that “bottoming out,” the methods you were using to cope just are not working any longer. You can try more of the same, harder, and with more single-minded desperation, but life is demanding something more from us than more mental effort, more than generating more information, more than creating more guidelines of control.


Don’t get me wrong, we need information and guidelines, but human beings require more than that. In these times, we need to start figuring out how to find the best practices of the heart. There is an innate healing force within all of life. We have immune systems, we have neuroplasticity, and we have the drive of a vital force to live, adapt, evolve, grow, and transform. Every person has the capacity for healing. As healers, we are called to become specialists in healing, we are called to become healing medicine, not just for ourselves, but for those around us who are suffering.


The medicine needed for healing

Medicine was a calling before we became applied scientists and technicians. Hopefully, medicine still is a calling and we are just sometimes too busy to listen to the still, small voice within our hearts that is calling us to healing, calling us to grow beyond ourselves, to extend ourselves, to be together with suffering. How can we become the medicine that we so desperately need for our own healing? How can we become the best medicine that the world so desperately needs right now? It is a calling which never ends, so we need an ever-renewing source of vitality, hope, and optimism.


Returning to a medicine of the heart

Perhaps it is time to return to a medicine of the heart and a medicine of the soul. We cannot turn our backs on the medicine of the intellectual and scientific. But maybe, now, more than ever, we need to search for and cultivate the best medicine of our hearts. Maybe we can find this best medicine of the heart, together, because as musician Ben Lee sings, “We’re all in this together.”


David Kopacz works as a psychiatrist in Mental Health Primary Care Integration at Seattle VA. He is a National Education Champion with the VA Office of Patient Centered Care & Cultural Transformation and is an Assistant Professor at University of Washington. His latest book, with Joseph Rael (Beautiful Painted Arrow), is “Becoming Medicine: Pathways of Initiation into a Living Spirituality.”