Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Blind Mechanic

A few weeks back, I saw a very thin man being wheeled into the ER. I nodded toward him and smiled. He nodded back. He was not my patient so I went back to work on my own patients. About an hour later I noticed the monitors and said to a nurse, “You should check him, his pulse is dropping.”

The nurse looked up, “Oh, that's okay. He's dying. Terminal cancer, he just came in for pain control. He's comfortable now, so we're letting him die with his family.”

I noticed several young women around him who I assumed to be his daughters holding the man's hands. “Overall not a bad way to go, painless and being loved,” I thought and returned to my work.

Physicians see death so often that it becomes familiar. We are Mechanics of life and death, tinkering with the machinery of the body everyday. We intervene to keep the machine running, but eventually the mechanism always becomes unstable and breaks down.

Contrary to what you might imagine, doctors have no deepened understanding of death.

Doctors talk a lot about their own deaths, but not like you might talk about it. They don't discuss the meaning of death, or how it makes them appreciate the beauty of life. Seeing so much death, doctors mentally amass large collections of different ways people die. Doctors discuss the pros and cons of different ends to life, like other people might debate which car or computer is best: “Not a bad way to go.” “I hope I don't go like that.” “I want to go quickly.” “No, I want to go slow so I can set things in order.” “I want to feel nothing, just load me up with pain meds.” “No I don't mind hurting some so I can be aware of my family visiting me.” “I won't let them run a code on me if I'm old.” “I would prefer a sudden heart attack, dead before I hit the ground.” “No, I want to fade into dementia and never know what's happening.” “Renal failure isn't so bad a way, you just fall asleep and don't wake up.” We actually have such conversations, pulling various deaths from our collections and comparing them. Since we tinker with the mechanism of death we think we understand it.

Doctors mistake familiarity for understanding. We mistake the end of our job for the end of the matter.

Even we physicians of faith often think like nihilists. I struggle to remember that I know more than what I see. Every time I recite the Apostle's Creed I affirm that “I believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting.” Still I must tear these blinders from my eyes to see with the eyes of faith. My perspective is limited, and my blinders that help me in my work sometimes make me blind. There is so much more to life and beyond life than this these faulty machines and ways the are repaired or broken.

*Note: information about the patient mentioned above is intentionally inaccurate to protect identity and privacy.

1 comment:

Dad said...

"The days ordained for me were written in your (God's) book before the first one came to be."

The above is in the book of Psalms (I can't recall the chapter & verse). I have committed it to memory, and I remember and receive comfort from it every time I contemplate my mortality.