Carl Hammerschlag discusses balance

By Roman Petrowski, Office of Communications
January 21, 2020

The word for health in the Navajo language is “hozho.” Hozho is also the word for truth, beauty, harmony, balance, and the great spirit.

“What a wonderful concept: to be in balance, to be in harmony,” renowned psychiatrist Carl A. Hammerschlag, MD, CPAE, said. “When what it is you know with your head, what it is you say and do with your lips and actions, and what it is you feel in your heart are all telling the same story, then you are in balance: then you are in health.”

Hammerschlag joined the Department of Emergency Medicine for its grand rounds with his presentation “Saving the Lives of Others (and Your Own)” Jan. 9, with the goal of teaching physicians how to ensure their own health while caring for others.

“You spend a lot of time-saving people’s lives,” Hammerschlag said. “We come into this field because it’s a ministry. It touches the heart and soul of who we are. It reminds us of what we like best about ourselves. But now there is this idea that you have to take care of business, and deal with the trauma, and then you go home, and you’re supposed to not talk about it and carry it with you.”

Hammerschlag was born in New York City to parents of Holocaust survivors, a unique history to which he credits his entire life work. He received his medical degree from the Update Medical Center, Syracuse in 1964 before serving as an intern at the United States Public Health Service Hospital (USPHS) and eventually joining the USPHS Indian Hospital in 1965, where he served as a surgeon (Lt. Commander) and later the chief of psychiatry at the Phoenix Indian Medical Center.

It was during his time working with the USPHS Indian Hospital that Hammerschlag said he first learned how to heal.

“I came to the Indian Health Service, and I thought I was the hottest thing on the block,” Hammerschlag said. “Working there etched away at that narcissism, but I learned what it meant to be healthy.”

Early in his career, Hammerschlag was introduced to a man who was being treated for congestive heart failure. After introducing himself and explaining that he would be the man’s doctor, the man asked Hammerschlag where he learned how to heal.

“I thought that he meant where I went to medical school,” Hammerschlag said. “So I recite this litany of academic achievement, and he looks at me and says ‘do you know how to dance?’ I didn’t want to be caught short, so I said ‘of course I know how to dance.’”

The man motioned for Hammerschlag to dance at his bedside, and when finished, Hammerschlag asked the man if he knew how to dance. The man, who unbeknownst to Hammerschlag was a traditional healer, or medicine man, rose from the bed still attached to the machines, and proceeded to dance.

“It was really good,” Hammerschlag said. “I asked him, ‘will you teach me to dance that way?’ After a long pause, he said, ‘I can teach you my steps, but you have to be able to hear your own music.’”

Hammerschlag said that was the most important lesson he learned in medicine, and it happened over 50 years ago. Much like the Navajo word hozho, if you are in balance, then you are in harmony, and you are in health. If you stay out of balance, then sooner or later you are going to get sick.

“As a nation, we are all out of balance,” Hammerschlag said. “What people say is not necessarily what the mean. What they believe is not what they say. Saying what it is you really feel and mean has become archaic.”

Hammerschlag said that living under chronic stress and stressful conditions eats away at balance and harmony. It causes people to only believe in the things that are in their own head instead of following what they believe is right in their heart.

“There’s a cause and effect relationship with everything,” Hammerschlag said. “But for your consideration, there are some things that happen that we can’t explain. We tend in our culture to subordinate what it is we feel. When it comes to answering those unanswerable questions, what you feel is just as important as what you know.”

Hammerschlag encourages people to trust what they feel, because he said he believes that what is closest to the truth comes just as much from what you feel as what you know. He said the mind subordinates our dreams as to whether it is likely to be achieved, while the heart dares to imagine what is possible.

Hammerschlag explained that the pursuit of certainty, or having to know something, is a tribute to arrogance and fear. He said he believes that if you have to know something before you do it, then you will only do what you know.

“We need to be inspirers of hope,” Hammerschlag said. “We need to connect with people in ways that remind them that we’re there together with them, especially in this day and age. We spend so much time learning how to dance our healing dance one way. We figure even if it is not the best way, it’s our way. There has to be a willingness to learn new dance steps.”

The question then becomes, how do we get out of that kind of thinking? Hammerschlag said the way he does it is to disconnect from his own head.

“My head tells me, ‘don’t do this,’ ‘what would your mother have said?’ and ‘you must be out of your mind,’” Hammerschlag said. “The best way to get out of my head and into my heart is to clown.”

Hammerschlag met Patch Adams, MD, when he was 50 years old. Adams, the world’s most recognized humanitarian clown led a meeting of roughly 70 dentists, and in the middle of the meeting, Adams brought out clown noses and invited the dentists to find whatever they could in their hotel room and meet him in the lobby. Adams and the dentists then paraded around the streets of Silverton, Colo., acting as clowns.

Hammerschlag developed a close relationship with Adams. He shared a story of dressing in a white toilet costume and walking around the mall looking for shoes. He said that most people avoided the two of them and walked the other way, except for one sales rep.

“That started my career in comedy,” Hammerschlag said. “You get out of your head and just get into this space.”

Hammerschlag’s clown character is a flamingo ballerina. He wears a tight pink tutu with a large flamingo head. He admits that as a 6’6” physician it looks “absolutely ridiculous.”

“It just inspires laughter,” Hammerschlag said. “When you get out of your head, and you connect with people at that level, if you can laugh at each other, it doesn’t matter who you are. Even in devastation and despair, if you can share a moment in which you can giggle, that moment reminds them and you of your faith in humanity.”

Despite suffering himself from diaphoresis and tachycardia, Hammerschlag continues to spread clown joy and healing in disaster areas, refugee camps, and institutions all over the world. He is a recipient of the National Caring Award, which honors the ten most caring adults in American.

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