I want to tell you the story of an encounter with an unusual patient in my medical education.
In May one year in school for Chinese Medicine, I attended one of many qi gong retreats. When I arrived, I discovered an injured bird. It turned out that just before our car had pulled in, a young cliff swallow aiming for its nest had flown into a window and fallen two stories to the pavement of the driveway. The resident dog at the retreat center had gently picked it up in its mouth and carried it to a safe grassy area. I encountered the dog curled around little bird, watching over it. The bird was breathing rapidly with his mouth open and wee tongue protruding, eyes closed, and wings splayed out onto the grass.
The dog stood up and walked away. The bird was now my responsibility.
I got a paper towel to make a nest, carefully scooped it up, and cradled it in my hands as I sought help. It didn’t struggle, probably in shock. It was a Friday evening in rural Washington, with our three-day class about to start, so there would be no trip to a wildlife veterinarian. I gently patted its sides and belly to see if there was any blood or areas that cause it to flinch, and found nothing. I considered where I was. The purpose of the retreat was to study qi gong, and the other participants were still arriving. Might as well practice what I’m learning. I stood in Universe Stance, with the bird between my hands.
As I cradled the bird, worried that it had been fatally injured and I was providing end-of-life care, I noticed instead that its breathing calmed, its mouth closed, and its wings folded. A few minutes later, it walked up my fingers to perch instead of crouching in my palm, and its bright eyes began to look around.
Fifteen minutes later it climbed up onto my shoulder and nestled in my hair. It even sat with me while I ate dinner. Finally, someone tried to move it from my shoulder, and it flew away.
That evening as we began our classes, we reflected on our progress through education; this retreat was happening just before we entered clinic to treat patients rather than simply observing treatment done by our teachers. As my colleagues spoke, I could hardly listen, as I thought with growing awe about what had just happened from the bird’s perspective. This wild being – this untamed, undomesticated, fragile, tiny bird– had received a possibly fatal blow, fallen two stories, been carried in the mouth of a predator, and been scooped from the ground by a giant. And yet, it trusted me. Not only did it trust my touch, but it sat on my shoulder in the chaos of 20 other retreat participants chattering and eating, coming and going. And when it was ready, it flew back into the wild.