Thursday, April 05, 2007

IC Column: Grey's Anatomy Some of What Medicine Is

'Grey's Anatomy:' some of what medicine is

By: Patrick Beeman

Posted: 3/22/07

OK. Perhaps my last column on "Grey's Anatomy" was a bit harsh. I was challenged to find some good in the show, and I never turn down a challenge (which is part of the reason I am now in medical school). At any rate, after scouring through too many "Grey's" episodes, I found one beacon of light within the drama's benighted moral universe.

In one episode, the intern George O'Malley is wrestling with his father's illness and death. In a conversation with the attending cardiothoracic surgeon Preston Burke, George cries out to his friend for guidance on what to do about his father. He presses Burke for the scientifically best course of treatment for his father's illness. Burke hesitates and says, "I don't have any more medicine for you. Now, it's about faith." Incredulous, George bursts out "but we're men of science."

"In my experience, science is not enough, O'Malley," Burke retorts, "but if you want me to hope with you and send up a prayer, that is something I'd be happy to do." And there you have it: "Grey's Anatomy's" single, solitary, sole expression of something profound. But then again, if one speaks enough, he's bound to hit upon something of depth at one point or another. By golly, I'll even admit that on that principle gunners ask good questions sometimes.

At any rate, my point in bringing this scene to your attention is to highlight the importance of recognizing the limitations of science and medicine. You see, medicine is about human life. This is not some feel-good nicety we doctors-in-training tell ourselves in order to justify the unconscionable salaries some of us desire. Rather, this goes to the heart of medicine's raison d'etre. That may sound pedantic, but it is no less true for that reason.

Medicine is an inherently moral enterprise that, nevertheless, needs the guiding power of ethics in order to stay true to its mission to comfort, cure and heal the sick without consideration for their social status, ability to pay or whatever; in short, to defend life in all its forms from conception to natural death. Medicine can only "take you so far," as it were. But when it comes to the big questions the sick person asks as he faces the horror of disease, suffering and even death, the answers are to be found outside the realms of scientific enquiry and inside the properly human part of man. And most fundamentally, man is a religious creature who finds his fulfillment only in something outside himself: namely, in God.

Is it any wonder, then, why the sick are often so much closer to God than the healthy? The comfort and material success of the wealthy and psychologically content are ingredients in a recipe for complacency. The logic goes: why worry about God, if I can meet my needs on my own? But when the stability of life is pulled out from under a person by the malicious hands of sickness, one sees his radical dependence on something greater than himself. He learns that his life is not his own, and his destiny is inextricably bound to something higher. Here's a lesson we all could learn: suffering, though not something to be sought in itself (that would be masochism), nevertheless has redemptive value. However, it is up to the person suffering to give it such value.

And the rest of us who are confronted with the suffering of others? Our recourse is not only in the fallibility of the medical profession, as "Grey's" taught us this one time. It is also in hope and prayer. So, let us hope and pray that medicine will humbly recognize its limitations in answering questions pertaining to life's meaning and abandon the pompous support of so-called mercy killing, abortion, embryonic stem cell research and the like.

I've got no more medicine for you now. But if you want me to offer up some hope and a prayer to end the suffering of the unborn, the sick, and the dying, that's something I'd be happy to do.
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