Our recent conversation about conscience and medicine and the ongoing conversation about science and controversies is reflected in the NPR “Speaking of Faith” replay of an interview with, and publication of an essay by, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen. (The outline and much of the story is available in text, here.)
“An answer is an invitation to stop thinking about something, to stop wondering.”
Dr. Remen speaks of the stories that we share, the meaning that we need to find in those stories and acknowledges that objectivity is in itself a bias. Scary thought: that some data is ignored in science, medicine and public policy because it doesn’t fall within the parameters that we’ve already decided is acceptable.
There’s a description that most of us who have any medical training at all will recognize: the med student looking at the veins of strangers and judging their suitability for drawing blood or inserting IV’s:
On one very rare summer afternoon off I remember traveling home to visit my parents on the subway, realizing only after a while that I had been unconsciously scanning the veins of the bare-armed people around me, wondering whether my skills with a needle were good enough to allow me to successfully draw blood from them. This sort of training changes the way you see things, the way you think. Gradually things that had been central in my previous life became vague and faded into the background and other things more heavily rewarded became overdeveloped. After a time I just forgot many important things.
Actually, what seems a demeaning way of looking at the human body isn’t necessarily a proof that medical training leads to depersonalization and instrumentalization of our fellow humans, if we recognize the new viewpoint as an outgrowth of our wish as students and doctors to heal, prevent and relieve pain. Finding the underlying meaning or connecting it to a story that has a “better” meaning can inform our conscience, help to maintain our integrity and prevent some suffering of our own as profession.
About 20 minutes into the interview, there’s the story of Dietert, who continued weekly chemotherapy injections as the only way to continue the contact – the touch and communication – with his doctor. In the meantime, the doctor was depressed because the “only thing” he had was failing to cure the patient. I worry about this: how often do we only offer and only validate active intervention, science and the material, rather than the passive, spiritual or psychological valuable – the intangible moral worth – like the listening that Dr. Remen offers so generously?
Early in the interview, Dr. Remen speaks of her mystic, Orthodox Jewish grandfather who described the birthday of the world as an accident, when the vessels containing the light of the world were broken and the striving of each of us to heal the world, to reveal the light around us and especially in our fellow human beings. I recognize her grandfather’s conversation with the world, and with God, as I was raised surrounded by the knowledge of the love of God.
Now, I am just as guilty as anyone else of deciding that if you don’t at least relate somehow to the same meaning that I do. If you don’t seem to even live in the same reality that I do, you must be wrong and may even be insane. You’d benefit from my “fixing” you (her word, not just mine), either by inundating you with facts and references and some arguing or by some medical or technological intervention, like a nice shot of Haldol (“vitamin H”) or an antipsychotic medication.
But I think – I hope – my best skill is listening, learning your language and meanings, and trying to translate between our two perceptions (even if I have to admit to myself that I really think of it as my understanding and your misunderstanding).
What too many people don’t realize is that it’s actually easier to interfere than to refrain. (So we end up with drug resistant bacteria, because it was easier to write the antibiotic than to explain viruses and risk your anger. Or it’s easier to hook you up to chemotherapy, a ventilator or dialysis than to explain that I’m probably not going to be able to cure or even heal you. At least it looks – it feels – like I’m doing something!)
The interview and the essay point to the need for meaning in the practice of medicine beyond “objective” science and even healing that we can achieve as doctors – and society. I love the how and when, the molecules and causes. I believe in the germ theory and the disease model of Western medicine. I need and love my tests and measurements. But what drives me (and gets me in trouble) are the why’s and what if’s, what is right or ethical. It’s probably what drives you, too or you wouldn’t be reading this blog.
(I think Dr. Remen’s Orthodox Jewish grandfather and I would have had a nice conversation during this season of Hanukkah and Christmas, when our two traditions celebrate light and dedication, revelation and reconciliation, watching and listening expectantly and generously.)