Feeling the Shards beneath My Feet

I sit here finishing up grades from my summer courses. These are the last things that I must complete today in order to head out of town for some relaxation and rest. I am reading some of the papers from my students who have been especially challenging over this past semester. As a professor of medicine/surgery, I am charged with making sure that I give those who are under my counsel, the best teaching and information so that they may treat patients. In that treatment of patients, they will profoundly affect the lives of those who are in possible crisis, turmoil and those who are likely navigating sentinel events in their experiences. My students have treated my examples, not as learning experiences but as “how can I get the answer right”.

I like to think that I was a bit difference, having come into medical school after being a professor of biochemistry/molecular biology for a few years. Being in the sciences was about imparting information and facts, ensuring that my students back then could use that information and facts to explore and discover new facts that would give more understanding into cancer, heart disease, renal disease and other human afflictions. I wanted my biochemistry students, graduate and undergraduate to appreciate the complexity yet simplicity of moving electrons in oxidation-reduction, energy transformations and efficiency within living systems. Biochemistry and molecular biology are fundamental to understanding how live works on a molecular level. This is the stuff of my early research, looking for the descriptions of how and why; enjoying the insight that those discoveries bring.

In medicine, it’s applied science with much art thrown in. To this end, I seek more understanding of humanity. As a student and teacher of science, I embraced the most complex and detailed information of the sciences that I seek to teach and study. With the art, I have to do my personal explorations and connections. I reach out to my colleagues in history, literature, and the performing arts for their input. Most have dismissed my interest in these matters because I am a physical scientist; an experience that I find troubling at times. Yes, I am learning and forcing myself to take in the work of my liberal and performing arts colleagues; my own journey later in life.

My students have been quite happy to dismiss my observations into the spiritual side of what we do in medicine. There are more “important” matters to consider because “science and medicine are more important than art” one of my students wrote to try to impress me. “Anyone can go to the movies or read a novel,” he wrote in all earnestness. “For crying out loud”, I wrote back, “Don’t you get it?” We have to consider every part of humanity, not just science when it comes to the practice of medicine/surgery. I am dismissed as being “too soft” and certainly not very “scientific”, whatever that is in medicine.

I want them to “get it”. I want them to always strive to get it right but get it done with an eye to how the practice of medicine isn’t like pumping gas or changing a flat tire. The practice of medicine when done without the humanity is not a practice, it becomes a routine job. Medicine can’t be routine ever because human beings are never routine.

Sure, I have been well-trained in how to throw a suture, close a wound, remove a colon, transplant a kidney but when I perform those skills, the person upon whom I perform them is a precious and remarkable human being. I can’t ever forget that I have been granted the privilege of being able to touch their lives and use my skills to help them do the millions of daily tasks that make up the lives that they choose to live.

I also find myself being summarily “dismissed” by many of my colleagues. Such dismissals have always been part of my existence because I am a woman, in a man’s profession; because I am a racial minority and because I am just devalued as a human being by those who consider themselves better by virtue of birth or circumstance. I walk on broken glass because I can’t seem to do anything else. While walking on those shards, I continue to feel and take on the pain of those I treat and seek to help.

My spiritual work is an intrinsic to what I do as a physician and my spiritual work has brought deeper understanding of how every part of a phenomenal human being must be treated. I can’t assign different values to different humans based on color, income or any other characteristic. For me, every human life, regardless of age, mental status, sex or religion has the same value and that value is priceless. I seek to know my patients on as many levels as I can often connecting deeply and spiritually to them, something that is not well defined in science. For me, the shards of glass are meshing art and science in my teaching and my practice. It’s no wonder that I need to recharge so off I go to sit, run in the fog and connect with myself so that I can keep fighting for the soul of what I do.

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