Sometimes, we physicians lose our way. It’s particularly a problem of young physicians, in training. But it can afflict anyone, at any time. And it happens when we see medicine as an end in itself, rather than a means.
Oh, it’s an exciting thing, to be sure. I remember being an emergency medicine resident. I remember carrying the pager for the LifeLine Helicopter at Methodist Hospital of Indiana. Oh, the tingling thrill of the pager, the palpable, heart-racing excitement of running to the landing pad! How I loved strapping on a helmet, buckling in and flying off to the scene of a wreck, where we would swoop in and rescue some poor soul who had been crushed in twisting metal, thrown from a motorcycle or stabbed in the chest.
Sometimes I found myself flying to a small hospital, with few resources, and taking a burned child back to the teaching center; it was cowboy in a white hat material! Rolling the stretcher across the pavement, loading the terrified, suffering child into the helicopter as we gave fluids and pain medication.
Some mornings it was almost spiritual, flying across the bitter-cold Indiana landscape, over snow-covered corn-fields and dimly lit houses on farms. I found myself, occasionally, drifting to sleep (before we had a patient, mind you), lulled by the white noise of the rotor above and the wonderful sense of being in the right place, doing the right thing. Of being…a doctor!
Later, when my wife and I had children of our own, it all came to me with stunning clarity. It began when my oldest was hospitalized as an infant. He had Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), a kind of bronchiolitis developed by many children, especially in winter. He terrified us with his rapid breathing, with the retractions of his little chest. Medicine was suddenly no longer an end, but a means. It was the means to making my child well, so I could bring him home to normality.
A few years later, my second developed diabetes at age four. His blood sugar was 600, and we began a journey that continues to this day, and involves an insulin pump and frequent blood sugar checks. As fascinating as the science may be, as incredible as the technology has become, what I want to hear his physician say is this: ‘he’ll be fine, and live a long, healthy life. His diabetes won’t limit him.’ Medicine, a means to life, a means to health and wholeness.
Decades into my practice, my family has seen appendicitis and lacerations, cancer and allergies. And I see with stunning clarity that behind the car-crashes of my adrenaline filled residency, there were terrified family members praying for their loved one. That in the waiting room, where the burned child was treated, were parents desperate for someone to say, ‘it will be alright.’
Behind the medical travails of my own family, I have learned to see that medicine, and physicians, exist not merely as sources of income, or subjects for fascinating research or cutting edge procedures. They exist to provide a bridge of hope, a causeway across troubled water and back to life as everyone wants it. Or at the worst, to provide comfort in times of pain, and times of loss.
It isn’t an end. It’s a means. The end is back home, before the fire, eating, laughing and smiling with the ones we love. The most important things were not in my helicopter, but in the quiet houses where families slept on the farms beneath us back in Indiana, in the homes I drive past on my way my current job.
It’s a matter of perspective. And while it’s hard to teach the young, the unconnected, those not yet broken and reshaped by love, it’s still a vital lesson. Remembering it may well be the key to restoring the focus of physicians and reforming the very foundations of medical practice.