Helping People Is Not Enough

Surgeons operating on a patient. “surgery”. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Web. 22 Aug. 2013. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/media/120264/Surgeons-operating-on-a-patient

[This is the second post in a series on becoming a Christian physician. The series began with Do You Want to Be a Doctor?]

“Why do you want to work in healthcare?”

“I want to help people.”

This dialogue is the most common conversation people will have about a career in medicine. The way we think about healthcare professionals tends towards the poignant and provocative: heroic paramedics and EMTs in ambulances, austere physicians and pharmacists and lab researchers in crisp white coats, dutiful and deeply compassionate nurses in a hospital ward, charming and encouraging therapists in the office. By and large, these images are positive ones of trust, care, and goodness.

These perspectives have a special resonance with the current generation because they reflect genuine and people-oriented views in an otherwise superficial and increasingly disconnected society. Today’s aspiring professionals are idealists, but many of them are also suspicious of systems, corporations, and financial interests. The rising workforce is relational and post-modern, seeking out “authentic” experiences and friendships grounded in elements that reflect something valuable, tangible, and indisputably good. It is therefore logical to prize healthcare highly as a career, for what experiences can be more raw, positively-minded, and relationally-oriented than the alleviation of suffering, the curing of illness, and the postponement of death?

However, those desires are usually not easy to articulate. They are both driven and complicated by personal experiences, often triggered by a sense of helplessness in the midst of a family member’s illness and the desire to do something more in the presence of someone hurting deeply. Sometimes it is generated by one’s own history of illness and is inspired by the medical professionals that helped with the overcoming. Sometimes (like for myself), there hasn’t been such an experience yet, but there is a drive to want to help in those kinds of situations.

Precisely because these experiences are so personal, meaningful, and often abstract, they are powerful. Many who seek to enter into the healthcare fields imagine that every day of work will be filled with such deeply meaningful stories and interactions, and that this will make the sheer difficulty and toil of everything – pre-professional studies, applications, schooling, clinical training, certification, re-certification – something that is worth it in the end.

While most practicing professionals will attest that this is true and that they have moments of great satisfaction that “make the work worthwhile”, most will also admit that such experiences are often few and far between. Healthcare has become a field that is increasingly overwhelmed by bureaucracy, regulation, insurance concerns, and quality control. Some of these measures are good and necessary, but all of them can be frustrating and laborious. There are plenty of other factors that also cause healthcare providers to become more and more cynical and jaded, even in the fields that seem most glamorous and exciting (emergency medicine, surgery, critical care).

At the end of the day, healthcare is a field like any other. Even though its manifestations of frustration and cynicism may be unique and specific to the field, they fundamentally have the same rootedness in human sinfulness that plagues any corporate job, deskwork, or task we find to do: greed, pride, self-centeredness, laziness, envy, etc.

This is what I mean when I say that “helping people is not enough.” While the desire is necessary to enter into and enjoy the field, it is not sufficient, because there will come a moment (or perhaps a long series of moments) in which you do not “feel” that same sense of satisfaction, or when you catch yourself saying or doing something so horrifically cynical that you hold yourself in disbelief and contempt, or when you are so overwhelmed by the suffering and burdens of others that you cannot wait to escape. In those moments, each of us will have to recognize that all patients will suffer and that all patients will one day die.

In those moments, we are challenged to become more humble and recognize that the satisfaction of medicine cannot ultimately come from helping people alone, because eventually we will find ourselves in a moment in which we are just as bankrupt and incapable of offering aid as that first moment when we sat and watched helplessly at the bedside of a loved one, when we first prayed those anguished requests for relief and redemption. At those moments, we must find ourselves at the foot of the cross if we are to have any truly meaningful and lasting faith and practice.

Fresco from Kariye Camii, Anastasis – showing Christ and the resurrection of Adam and Eve, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54562 [retrieved August 22, 2013]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/trevino/314606353/in/photostream.

I am reminded of a song:

Who, oh Lord, could save themselves,
Their own soul could heal?
Our shame was deeper than the sea
Your grace is deeper still

You alone can rescue, You alone can save
You alone can lift us from the grave
You came down to find us, led us out of death
To You alone belongs the highest praise

You, oh Lord, have made a way
The great divide You heal
For when our hearts were far away
Your love went further still
Yes, your love goes further still

You alone can rescue, You alone can save
You alone can lift us from the grave
You came down to find us, led us out of death
To You alone belongs the highest praise

You alone can rescue, You alone can save
You alone can lift us from the grave
You came down to find us, led us out of death
To You alone belongs the highest praise
To You alone belongs the highest praise
To You alone belongs the highest praise

We lift up our eyes, lift up our eyes
You’re the Giver of Life

You alone can rescue, You alone can save
You alone can lift us from the grave
You came down to find us, led us out of death
To You alone belongs the highest praise
To You alone belongs the highest praise
To You alone belongs the highest praise

You Alone Can Rescue, Matt Redman

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David

David graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and received his medical degree from Rutgers - Robert Wood Johnson Medical School with a Masters in Public Health concentrated in health systems and policy. He completed a dual residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at Christiana Care Health System in Delaware. He continues to work in Delaware as a dual Med-Peds hospitalist. Faith-wise, he is decid­edly Christian, and regarding everything else he will gladly talk your ear off about health policy, the inner city, gadgets, and why Disney’s Frozen is actually a terrible movie.

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One Comment

  • jamesklichii@aol.com'
    WhatWhoWhere commented on September 22, 2013 Reply

    Never help a person under any circumstance.

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