A doctor's hidden pain

Popular physician shares his family's secret in his new book; will read at local book store
In many ways Dr. Robert Barnes has been two different individuals in his life. For years he was the medical practitioner who kept his emotional distance with his patients.

Around the age of 70 all of this changed. That was when the true Barnes, who had suffered from depression and a terrible family secret - his father's suicide - began to surface.

The doctor's life and struggles are discussed in his newly released book, "The Good Doctor is Naked: Finding the Human Beneath My Mask."

A realization
The author said for many years he was hiding behind the image of a doctor, something he saw as typical of the profession. He said that the mask that doctors wear is that of authority and power.

But a transformative experience took place for the author when he realized that he wanted an emotional connection with his patients.

After 30 years of private practice as an internist and in professional medical organizations, Barnes realized that a spiritual life was important to him, that it helped pull him out of his depression and that he wanted to help others, too.

So Barnes decided to become licensed to provide clinical pastoral care. During the period that he was learning how to spiritually support patients and their families, the doctor was benefiting himself.

"Everything was freed up," he said. "I told my story."

Opening up
During the process, Barnes discussed the family secret: his father's suicide. He was only 10 years old when it happened.

The doctor hadn't wanted anyone to know all those years.

"I hadn't even told my wife," he said. "You didn't talk about it."

The author suggested that he was afraid that if his friends and family knew, he would be rejected. He also was concerned that church leaders and fellow Episcopalians might judge him harshly. He has been a member of the Episcopal Church for 50 years.

Far from being ostracized by those near him, when he told others what happened, Barnes was amazed that his experience was not unique. Many told him similar stories.

After talking about it, he was more at peace with himself. "Suicide in a family can destroy it, especially if you don't talk about it," the doctor said.

While Barnes found it more gratifying to have a spiritual connection with patients and their families, it was difficult for him to change roles.

As he mentioned in his book, he had to learn to listen and to not give orders, as he had as a doctor.

The author said that he also felt "naked" at first without the stethoscope and white coat, but in his "nakedness" he found strength and started figuring out who he really was. Working in pastoral care at Swedish Hospital and St. Mark's Cathedral on Capitol Hill, Barnes said, he had found his new calling.

Barnes' account has been widely lauded, with endorsements from University of Washington English professor Richard Dunn and Dr. Neil Elgee, who founded the Ernest Becker Foundation.

Elgee, who Barnes helped at the foundation, was concerned with doctors spending little time with terminally ill patients and moving on to those whom they can help more.

"'The Good Doctor is Naked,'" Elgee wrote in his endorsement, "gives a lot of insights for doctors who need to understand the dangers of withdrawing care from the dying patient."

The book also has gotten high-profile attention. Archbishop Des-mond Tutu, the Nobel Prize laureate, also endorsed Barnes' book, writing that Barnes' story "was a deeply moving account of someone coming to grips with a painful past."

Apparently, the author met Tutu several years ago when Barnes and his wife, June, hosted the archbishop at St. Marks.

"The Good Doctor is Naked" is available at Madison Park Books, 4105 E. Madison St., where Barnes will read from his book and sign copies on Sept. 9 at 7 p.m.[[In-content Ad]]