Schwartz Center Compassionate Caregiver of the Year Dr. Amy Ship

In accepting the award, Ship spoke of the importance of small gestures in the doctor-patient relationship – specifically, the art of listening with both eyes and ears. “Returning the (patient’s) gaze is one of those powerful small gestures,” she said. “It encapsulates empathy and compassion – being present, fully present, to another human being: pausing to look back. To say with our eyes that we are listening, that we hear.”

It’s a lesson she teaches medical students who rotate through Healthcare Associates. “I’m proud to be a primary care doctor,” she said. “Primary care is focused on continuity, of knowing one’s patients through all their illnesses and the complexity of their lives. And primary care is focused on prevention – on protecting you from the consequences of untreated but silent diseases and from unnecessary tests or hospitalization. That’s care we all need and deserve.

“I look out tonight at a room filled with people who have the minds, energy and position to change medicine, and I want to make it clear that primary care needs saving. Those who practice it need to be given the time to do it right. Primary care can literally save lives, but it can not be done well in the tiny 15-minute visits to which we are held. There is no ICD-9 Insurance Code for compassion.”

As the mother of two sons, Ari and Jeremy, both born with significant brain damage, Ship has experienced both sides of the doctor-patient relationship. “For more than eight years now, I have been on the other side of the table, the recipient of care rather that the caregiver,” she said. “Those who have paused to connect with me on this journey, or have identified strength or beauty in my sons, have gone well beyond whatever treatment they’ve recommended or prescription they’ve written. And those who have not seen my sons, have not paused to return their gaze, have ultimately not cared for me or them in any way.”

In 2006, at the age of 4½, Ari died suddenly, leaving a hole in the family’s heart.

“The longer I’ve practiced medicine, the more I’ve come to realize that we are all, as the years go on, ‘survivors,’” she said. “For some it is cancer, but for others it is diabetes, or seizures, or kidney failure, or all of the above. Others are survivors of loss – loss of a limb, loss of sight, loss of autonomy, loss of hope, loss of a loved one. And I have learned that many of us – like me – carry with us some secret sorrow – a loss or challenge that is not noticeable. Connecting with patients means looking for what is not immediately visible, listening for the hole in another’s heart.”

December 3, 2009