The Art Of Medicine
She was in her early 30s.
Six weeks previously, she had delivered a healthy baby. The Chief of Medicine and I were making rounds (seeing patients assigned to the teaching service of the hospital) when he said to me, “Let’s go see this lady.” I was in my third and final year of internal medicine residency and about to be taught something I would never forget.
The Chief, impressive in physical stature, maintained an overwhelming command of medical knowledge. One could say he was a walking textbook.
He was also a devout Catholic, a side of him which he manifested quietly. Everyone knew his daily routine involved a visit to the hospital chapel at noontime. In many ways, he was an inspiration to the physicians he taught.
The young mother had just been diagnosed with leukemia, and her responses to medical treatments were not going well. In time, it became obvious she was not going to survive her illness. I found it odd that on our daily visits the Chief would sit at the bedside, not to discuss the medical aspects of her disease, but rather to offer her encouragement. It seemed nothing of medicine was being taught.
I realized, in time, that these visits were more “therapeutic” than they first appeared. I was being taught the art of medicine and the importance of being a human presence at the bedside.
From a scientific point of view, medicine is all about the study of how the body is affected by disease and how the disease responds to treatment. For example, a medication thought to be a potential treatment is tested first on laboratory animals and then on humans. The hope is for a positive outcome. In order to be certain, a group of persons is administered the medication and a similar group is given a placebo (a look-alike without any medicinal properties).
Analysis of the properties of the medication on the disease will reveal improvement, no improvement, or in some cases furthering the ill effects. This is a “quantitative” approach to medicine, one much needed. No physician wants to have a patient participate in a treatment that is found to offer no improvement or brings harm. On the other hand, there is a “qualitative” part of medicine that is more difficult to measure, in a scientific fashion, which has an impact on patient care that is no less important.
Another situation comes to mind occurring years after my formal training ended. I remember the house was full of people and rather noisy with the sound of children. They became very quiet and wide-eyed, one whispering, “The doctor,” as I entered the bedroom of the dying patriarch of the family. I had my medical bag in tote but nothing in it useful enough to change the inevitable. Nonetheless, my patient and the family were very appreciative of the visit and the affirming confirmation of the care of their loved one.
The family patriarch died a short time later. I returned to the home, the crowd of people now larger, to confirm the death. I realized that my visits, much like the visits to a dying mother so many years previously, were not about me or the Chief of Medicine and the medical knowledge we could bring to the bedside, but about a presence.
It is safe to say medicine isn’t all about science. There is an art to medicine, an art that anyone can practice – no medical license needed! Perhaps we can look at our baptism as a type of “license.” Baptism allows us to enter into the body of Christ, the Church. Baptism summons us to provide companionship for compassion and empathy given to another in need. This is not enjoining the superficiality of sympathy but asks of us to come eye to eye with a person – to be a true presence reflecting the love of our Lord.
I never witnessed the Chief praying openly for our patient, but I have no doubt he prayed for her during more than one of his noontime excursions to the chapel. Beyond this act of communicating with God, my mentor knew that in some mystical way a visit, a presence to the sick, is a type of prayer. Of all God’s creations, only man has the genius to speak to God and another human being in this way.
I learned the art of medicine from a brilliant individual, not by what he said but by what he did. It is a lesson anyone can learn and anyone can exemplify.