One of the perks of being a physician is that you get to live in a state of perpetual awe. It starts with the first pass of the scalpel on your first day in the anatomy lab. It continues as you tease out every organ, blood vessel, and nerve in the body you’ve been assigned to dissect. A sense of wonder punches you in the gut the first time you hear a beating human heart, and you realize that your own heart has been beating steadily and predictably without any effort on your part since before the day you were born.
“Stay in a state of
gratitude and awe.”
You’d have to be a toadstool not to be mystified by the anatomy, physiology, and psychology of your very own body. You’d have no choice but to believe in miracles if you understood the way a broken body heals, what it takes for an open wound to close, how a lifeless heart can pick up the beat again. Don’t even ask what happens during sex.
I studied medicine for seven years and practiced for over three decades so I understand how the body heals. I know what it takes to keep it up and running. Most of the time, I know how to fix it when something goes wrong. Most people don’t. They get out of bed in the morning and expect their bodies to work.
The problem is sometimes they don’t. We take good health for granted until something goes wrong. The cancer comes back. The paralysis turns out to be permanent. The depression won’t lift. Sometimes the afflictions of the body go beyond its ability to heal. Beyond the physician’s ability to help.
“Every patient you see
is a lesson in much more than
the malady from which he suffers.
~Sir William Osler~
For example, Pat’s son has undergone forty operations to correct the disfiguring wounds caused by the explosion that blew the side of his face away. At first, the doctors didn’t think he would live. Now he’s not so sure he wants to. Each time he goes back for the next stage in reconstruction, the incisions heal. Not so his spirit. The hospital scares him. His reflection repulses him. He wants this to be over—the repairs, the rehabilitation, the pain. Life itself. His wounds may heal but he still has a hole in his heart.
Pat would gladly take on his pain, frustration, and despair if she could spare him a lifetime of misery. She would do anything to restore him to the brave, handsome young man he was before his deployment. If his lot in life is physical and mental anguish, hers is paralyzing heartache. He feels abandoned and she feels helpless.
Helpless—the way a doctor feels when a patient under his care gets worse and there is nothing he can do about it. When he has tried everything and nothing has worked. When he feels like a failure—so not God, as is sometimes still expected of physicians.
And that’s a problem. The downside of doctoring is that sometimes the patient gets worse despite your noblest efforts. The cancer spreads. The heart fails. The wound won’t close. There is nothing more you can do. You concede that it would take a miracle for the patient to recover. All you really have left is prayer.
But what if you don’t believe in prayer?
What would it take to change your mind?
Brenda was forty years old when she went in for her first routine mammogram. Yes, she performed regular breast self-examination. No, she hadn’t felt anything unusual, nor had her husband, a breast surgeon who would have known something was wrong had his highly trained fingertips come up against a lump there. Nor did she have a family history of breast cancer that put her at risk. Nothing.
Which is why the X-ray report came as such a shock. A large mass occupied most of her left breast and the calcifications in it looked suspicious. While she explained to her children why she had to go into the hospital, her friends and family stormed the heavens with prayer. You can imagine the collective sigh of gratitude and relief that went up when the surgical reports came back negative. When they failed to turn up a single cancer cell.
“Impossible,” the doctors said. They re-examined the X-rays. They pulled the slides out and went over them again in excruciating detail, searching for even one abnormal cell. They were left to shrug their shoulders in disbelief. She was healed. Her surgeon couldn’t explain it, but her friends and family hailed it as a miracle and they attributed it to prayer.
“Be patient toward all that is
unsolved in your heart
and try to love
the questions themselves.”
~Rainer Maria Rilke~
On the other hand, the doubting Thomases explained it away based on the limits of technology. After all, they insisted, not every X-ray is accurate. It might have been caused by human error. Perhaps the planets were aligned in her favor that day. They would accept any explanation but they would not acknowledge the triumph of a medical miracle. In cases like this, the faithful celebrate while skeptics ramp up arguments to explain it away, and doctors are left to shake their heads in disbelief.
Or in awe, depending on how you see it.
“I think this is how
we’re supposed to be in the world~
present and in awe.