Illness as Opportunity

When crisis stirkes, we can choose how to react.

By Laurie Wertich

No one plans to get sick. We plan parties, we plan vacations, we plan for retirement—we don’t plan for illness. Yet it happens. At some point we face our own mortality, or we may become a caregiver for a family member who is gravely ill. And though we can’t choose how these situations unfold, we can choose how we react.

“Cancer is a huge opportunity. So is a heart attack. So is a big accident,” says Bonnie Vestal, MD, medical counselor. “What we want to do with that [event] is make an opportunity out of it—an opportunity to learn who you are, what you’re doing here, and where you want to go.”

Filling a Need

While that may sound overly simplistic or even Pollyannaish to some, Dr. Vestal’s considerable experience working with people facing medical crisis has provided plenty of evidence to support her idea that opportunity can come from even the direst crises. She spent 20 years working as a pediatric oncologist—work that she says was her true calling. “I learned a lot about life and death and what people really want and how they move toward becoming more of who they can be,” she explains.

It was while working with these families of young cancer patients that Dr. Vestal noticed that there was a missing element in the care they were offered. Patients and families wanted to talk to her about what they were experiencing beyond the medical scope of the crisis. They wanted to talk about their illness, their fears, how to cope with how their lives had changed, and how to move forward.

Though Dr. Vestal referred them to counselors, many of those professionals didn’t understand enough about the medical aspects of the crises to be able to participate in the dialogue the patients and families craved. She saw an opportunity to bridge a gap by offering medical counseling, through which she provides guidance, clarification, and support in times of crisis.

The Only Way out Is Through

Many spiritual teachers teach the concept the only way out is through. Dr. Vestal is there for the “through” part. In medical counseling sessions, she helps patients examine the questions and the issues surrounding their diagnosis or that of their loved one. The goal of the work, she says, is not to “conquer” or transcend illness but rather to help people focus on the present moment.

Dr. Vestal focuses on three principles with her patients:

First, be present.

Second, find a sense of purpose.

Third, have an awareness of your sense of place in the scheme of things.

These are no small tasks in the face of stress and trauma, but Dr. Vestal insists that when life is on the line, it’s important to stop and consider these issues. “This is a whole-life job,” she explains. “It’s not just about cancer or illness; this is about your life.”

Ultimately, the counseling that Dr. Vestal provides for patients is not about finding a way to avoid or get past the crisis; it’s about continuing to live life in spite of the crisis—and potentially finding a way to live your life in a better way.

The Big Picture

One important tool that Dr. Vestal offers clients is perspective. During a crisis, she says, it’s important to stop, breathe, and remember that you are part of something larger. Sometimes Dr. Vestal will have patients look outside—look at the trees swaying in the breeze, look at the flowers blooming—and then she tells them, “Notice that you’re sitting here, too. You’re a part of this whole collective.”

She hopes this helps patients stay focused on the present and remember that life is happening right now.

Seizing the Moment

The work that Dr. Vestal and other medical counselors and their clients engage in is challenging. For patients who are dying, focusing on the joy of the present moment as they face the prospect of their life coming to an end can be difficult. But even in the face of death, this work can be valuable, as it can help people make peace with their life’s journey.

For patients who become sad or discouraged when they realize they haven’t had a chance to do some of the things they wanted to do, Dr. Vestal encourages action and advises them not to waste another day. “You want to have tasted all of what life had to offer,” she gently explains.

Dr. Vestal believes that it’s important to face the emotional aspects that a crisis inevitably brings. “Whatever rocks a person’s world sort of cracks them open and gives them an opportunity to sprout a new part of themselves,” she says. “I want to be there to assist with that.”