From Medical Economics
Here’s one doctor’s response to those who have struggled to find a balance between suffering and faith.
In our emergency department recently, I saw a family hovering around the bed of a shriveled little man. I wasn’t caring for him, but I knew his story. He was in the hospital with pneumonia, was probably septic, and had a grave prognosis. The man’s medical history was remarkable especially for one other thing: He was born with only half of a cerebrum, so that for his entire life up to this point, 55 years, he’d been in an infantile state. An amazing, tragic situation. But more amazing still, during all this time his mother and father had kept him at home. This was, in fact, his first hospitalization.
Over those 55 years, they had watched him transform from an infant, to a child, to an adolescent, to an adult—without his functional abilities ever changing or maturing. They never had the hope, even the false hope, that he would someday be complete.
It was easy to understand how their son’s situation might cause them to lose faith in a higher power. I could see how their son’s confinement to a lifetime of bed and diapers and liquid meals might make them say, “God? You must be joking!” And yet here, in the rural South, it’s rare to hear that kind of bitterness. Faith, for better or worse, is dyed into the fabric of the culture, inseparable from all other beliefs and customs.
Not so in many other places, of course. Elsewhere, this same lifeless life—symbolizing the final failure of medicine—leaves even doctors and nurses wondering where God is, wondering if God is.
Looking past the easy answers
After 12 years as an emergency physician, I understand why the practice of medicine sometimes undermines doctors’ faith.
I understood it the night I stared down at my partner’s shattered, swollen face, while his wife prayed for him, tears streaming down her own face, and their two fine sons gathered around his bed. During his years of practice, I wondered, how many drug addicts and dealers, drunks, wife beaters, murderers, and assorted liars and losers had this good man served and saved? Where was God when his servant wrecked his car that night and the swelling in his brain took his life?
I understood it the night when, with no pulmonary surgeon present, and no medevac helicopter available, I opened the chest of a young woman who’d been stabbed by her sister. After working in vain to save her, I was the one to bring the news of her death to her mother, who slid to the floor screaming. She would bury one child and see the other sent to prison.
And I understood it as I looked into the vacant eyes of a young girl whose sister had been decapitated after their car was side-swiped. As she waited for her family to arrive, we offered her sodas and snacks, and futile pats on the shoulder to comfort her.
In all these cases, the degree of pain and suffering was so great that God seemed absent, no longer part of the equation. If he were, he wouldn’t let such things happen.
But that answer is too easy. Indeed, in medicine, it’s our job to look past easy, apparent answers to hard solutions. And if that weren’t the case, we’d still be using poultices and bleeding everyone. We’d know little about the body, and we’d believe that diseases had more to do with foul air and evil spirits than with bacteria and viruses, tobacco and obesity.
In the same way, when I witness pain and loss, I realize something that isn’t at first apparent: Even in our moments of despair, we believe that people shouldn’t suffer and that, as much as humanly possible, we should keep them from it. And it’s this desire for something better for our patients that should strengthen our faith.
For if pain and loss were simply the way of the world, a natural and inevitable part of it, with nothing else and certainly no God, then the fact that people suffer and die really wouldn’t matter. And neither would college and medical school and everything else connected with medicine. But they do matter, and they matter because we believe that the diseases of the world and the pain and suffering they cause aren’t the way that things are meant to be. They represent only a partial image of the world. In the background, like a photographic negative that reveals a hidden shape, is God, waiting to make things whole when the right time comes.
The God myth? Well, sign me up
I didn’t get my spiritual belief from reading scripture or Bible pounding. It’s in my heart, where I believe God put it. I can’t convince anyone of it with doctrinal statements or communion wafers. The argument that God exists because he said he does simply doesn’t wash in this life. But for me, God exists because it just seems as if he should. The words of the Bible only make sense in that light.
Some people call this “the God myth,” a faith that can never be empirically proven. They require an evidence-based faith—and I understand their uncertainty, given their dedication to science and experience with disease.
But I’ve made my choice: Instead of deciding not to believe, and living with the expectation of ultimate loss after death, I’ve chosen to believe, to have some hope in this life up to my last breath. I prefer to close my eyes when the end comes fully expecting heaven, fully expecting to wake to wonders I can’t imagine. I prefer to be suddenly full of love and clarity, to know God in person, and to have around me the ones in this life I loved the most. If what I hope for is a myth, and I’m really only lying to myself for however many years I live, what harm will have been done? I will still close my eyes when my moment comes and smile, not shed tears.
After I thought about that infantile man and his family, and about his possible death, an image came to me. It was of him reunited with his parents in the next life. Strong, whole, and complete, he would meet them with arms open wide, ushering them to the reward they so justly deserved after devoting themselves to someone for whom there was no earthly hope. I hope the same image had occurred to them. I hope they understand that—because they had suffered something so wrong—they would be rewarded with something right to balance everything out.
If that’s the God myth, then sign me up. Because I’ve seen a boatload of pain so far. And none of it seems like it belongs. So I expect to see the flipside of it all one day, in a place far from blood and bandages, crying and loss, doctors and hospitals. I hope we can talk about it there.