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Compassion is what sustains me: Carol Cottrill

By John A. Patterson M.D., MSPH, FAAFP

It seems so fitting that Carol Cottrill’s medical specialty is the hearts of children- both physical and emotional. Her career path began when her 4th child was born with congenital heart disease.

Growing up on a family farm, she learned to balance compassion and necessity, a skill she would use in caring for her daughter and later during 18 years as medical director of UK’s pediatric ICU. Her daughter’s illness introduced her to wonderfully compassionate doctors and nurses who cared for sick children as their life’s work.

When her daughter died after Cottrill’s first year of medical school, she felt isolated from her classmates, who did not know how to talk to her about death, dying, loss and grief. She finally took the initiative, reached out to them and felt comforted.

She learned how to practice compassionate medicine more from relationships with classmates and patients than from the formal medical curriculum. She says, ‘whether it’s a fellow student or a patient, you have to become human to one another. People need to know you’re on their side. You do that with compassion. Compassion is when we both put a part of ourselves out there and we somehow touch one another.’

Cottrill worries about our growing reliance on technology. ‘If you are looking at a computer instead of a patient’s eyes, both of you are missing something important. Doctors need to be refueled. You can’t go at a tremendous pace and not get something back. I am refueled by what patients give back to me. Compassion is what sustains me.’

She believes compassion flows in both directions and needs to be cultivated in medical training to enrich the doctor-patient relationship and the quality of physicians’ lives. ‘Patients will give you compassion but you have to first give yourself to them. Practicing medicine without compassion is drudgery- just putting in your time. Neither you nor the patient is psychologically benefited and such physicians are apt to abandon the profession.’

Just as she learned compassion from her loving family and the kind nuns in Catholic school, she believes medical students and residents need to see compassion modeled by their teachers in medicine. Her ICU conversations with parents of dying children always included a resident so they could learn how to communicate with compassion.

Her office staff says, ‘She can calm a crying child better than we can. She gives us a shoulder to cry on after a hard day.’ She gives gas money to poor parents. She has taken into her home, and even adopted, children in desperate family circumstances, often to ensure a comfortable death. A former patient is now a pediatric cardiology fellow and calls Cottrill ‘my second mom.’ Ed Todd, retired cardiac surgeon, longtime colleague and friend says ‘she’s the closest thing to a saint I’ve ever known.’

Cottrill uses a wheelchair now due to the pain from spinal surgery and severe arthritis. Despite this, she makes regular mission trips to South America to provide cardiac consultation. In the process of this selfless service, she continues to be sustained by the mutual compassionate interactions with professional colleagues, her young patients and their families.

About the Author
Dr Patterson is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians and is board certified in family medicine and integrative holistic medicine. He is on the family practice faculty at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine and the University of Louisville School of Medicine. He operates the Mind Body Studio in Lexington, specializing in stress-related chronic disease and burnout prevention for helping professionals. He can be reached through his website at http://www.mindbodystudio.org

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