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Dalai Lama’s American doctor wants more compassion in medicine

October 27, 2015 at 6:35 PM EST
Before he was a personal physician to the Dalai Lama, Dr. Barry Kerzin never imagined that a professional trip to Tibet would lead him down a decades-long path studying Buddhism and meditation. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro talks to Kerzin in India about his feeling that compassion and empathy are essential to medical training.
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Editor’s note: A version of this story aired on the PBS Program “Religion and Ethics Weekly.” Fred de Sam Lazaro’s reporting is a partnership with the Undertold Stories Project at St. Mary’s University in Minnesota.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, first, the Dalai Lama was supposed to arrive in the U.S. yesterday. He didn’t, because doctors at the Mayo Clinic advised him to rest.

But advice flows both ways in the relationship between the Buddhist leader and his personal physician.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports on how the Dalai Lama inspired a California native to move halfway across the world and bring compassion back into a medical care system dominated by technology.

The report is part of Fred’s ongoing series Agents for Change.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Sixty-eight-year-old California native Barry Kerzin began his career as a professor of family medicine at the University of Washington. He never dreamed it would lead to a pro bono house calls thousands of miles away in Tibetan.

DR. BARRY KERZIN, Buddhist Scholar: I keep pinching myself, Fred. I don’t know.

(LAUGHTER)

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He first arrived here after hearing that the Dalai Lama had wanted a Western physician to train traditional Tibetan doctors in modern research methods.

DR. BARRY KERZIN, Buddhist Scholar: We did a research study. And we used that pedagogically to train the local Tibetan medicine doctors how to do the research.

And then I got more involved with Buddhism. I had already been very interested. I got more involved with meditation and study. And I ended up extending my stay. And that’s happened again and again and here I am 27 years.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: He came to India from a life punctuated by pain and loss, at 11, a near fatal brain abscess that required extensive surgery and left a permanent lump on his skull. His mother died young, and a few years later so did his wife, only in her mid-30s, both from cancer.

Buddhism became a sanctuary under the tutelage of the Dalai Lama, who told him to stay connected to the world.

DR. BARRY KERZIN: He always encouraged me to keep my credentials and to continue practicing medicine. Don’t just do the wisdom. Also do the love and the compassion. In fact, do them 50/50. Those were his words.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Scholarship in Buddhism led to his ordination as a monk, while meditation has been a path to inner peace and happiness. And that’s translated into empathy, he said.

DR. BARRY KERZIN: It’s slowly moved me along to be more compassionate, to be less selfish.

I don’t get angry very much anymore. I used to be highly competitive. I’m still somewhat competitive, but it’s more now personal, not at the expense of somebody else. I think it’s a combination of meditation and also, as His Holiness calls, emotional hygiene.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Kerzin, who now serves as a personal physician to the Dalai Lama, has taken the spiritual leader’s gospel of emotional hygiene and compassion to medical practitioners around the world.

DALAI LAMA (through interpreter): He is my messenger. Go to Japan, go to Mongolia.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: And full circle to America.

DR. BARRY KERZIN: It’s lovely to be at Stanford.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: A few years ago, a prestigious lecture at a top U.S. medical school wouldn’t have been given by a man who left American medicine and many stunned colleagues for a very different world, where he doesn’t own a house, car or refrigerator.

DR. BARRY KERZIN: I think initially they thought I went off the deep end. What are you doing living in India? Come on. You know, how can you stay healthy? Why don’t you come back? And you could have a very good life. You could have a very good academic life in medicine. You could have a very comfortable economic life. It’s ridiculous what you’re doing.

So let’s meditate, OK?

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: But on this day, they were listening, even meditating, with him. Kerzin says meditation helps one focus on the now, the present. You tune out the past and all your regrets, tune out planning and worry about the future. It’s taken years, he says, but gotten results, scientifically measured results.

DR. BARRY KERZIN: This is in Madison, the University of Wisconsin, and they’re researching my brain.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Kerzin has been part of a series of studies into the impact of meditation on the brain.

DR. BARRY KERZIN: What they found were changes in the prefrontal cortex. This area is called the executive function area, the PFC, and it helps with things like planning, reasoning, imagination, empathy, to feel as — like another person is feeling. So these areas were enhanced, both anatomically and functionally, in long-term meditators.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Kerzin’s host at Stanford said there’s an epidemic of dissatisfaction among American doctors today, which likely makes them more receptive to a message like Kerzin’s.

DR. ABRAHAM VERGHESE, Stanford School of Medicine: Fifty percent of them, they say in some studies, are unhappy. And that tells you this is not an individual problem. This is a systemic problem.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Dr. Abraham Verghese, well-known author and professor at Stanford, says technology, for all its benefits, leaves doctors little time for the compassion that drew most of them to medicine.

DR. ABRAHAM VERGHESE: There was a chilling paper from the “Journal of Emergency Medicine” titled “4,000 Clicks,” suggesting that an emergency medicine physician does 4,000 clicks a day and spends the great majority of their time on the computer, very little percentage of the time actually with patients, and similar studies that are coming out suggesting the same about residents and medical students and physicians in other specialties.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Kerzin says he wants to make compassion as integral to medical education as physiology or biochemistry, more partnerships between scientists and Buddhist scholars, a reconciliation of very different perspectives on life that he said he’s made internally.

DR. BARRY KERZIN: I used to say I wear two hats. So, sometimes, this is the medical hat, this is the Buddhist hat. But I don’t say that any more.

FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Today, he says he wears one scientist monk hat.

For the PBS NewsHour, this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Dharmsala, India.

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