A few months ago, at Schwartz rounds, a case of a pregnant patient who was being given chemotherapy was presented. When the nurse involved in the case was asked how she felt knowing that she was giving a potentially cytotoxic therapy to a patient that might hurt the fetus, she said it affected her deeply.
“As I hung the chemotherapy,” she said, “I prayed.”
This was a pretty powerful statement, I thought. She knew the science—the risks and benefits, the fact that the therapy was indicated, that the health of the fetus was dependent on that of the mother—but still, it wasn’t her brain that supported her in that time, but rather her quiet plea to a greater power that all should work out for the best.
Then, a few weeks ago, one of my medical student mentees came to meet with me. We talked about her experience with a patient with gastric cancer who had an incomplete resection. He knew his margins were positive, and that nothing further could be done. She asked him about advance directives, and perhaps not surprisingly, the conversation got around to what happens after death. He was comfortable that he had lived his life, and was at peace with his inevitable passing. As my medical student and I pondered this, we contemplated life and death. What is it to live a meaningful life? What we would want done if our heart and lungs should fail? How would we deal with a loved one’s passing? We thought about forgiveness and leaving the world at peace.
She, a Catholic, talked about St. Peter and accounting for one’s sins. Another medical student mentee, who was Hindu, came to see me soon after and joined in our conversation. He talked about reincarnation, and the cycle of life. As we were talking, my clinical secretary, who is Jewish overheard us and chimed in, educating us about Jewish practices. It was a sobering conversation—we work so hard every day trying to extend the quantity of life and improve the quality of life for our patients—but at the end of the day, every one passes on. In the quiet of my office that day, we realized that despite our differences in our exoteric religious beliefs, we are bound by a universal humanity that allows us to value the primacy of life and support our patients as they approach the end of that journey as difficult as that might be.
What we do every day takes an emotional toll, and the caring compassion that comes from our inner strength (whether inspired by formal religion or simply common moral fortitude) helps us to get through the day. The other day, for example, I received a depressing email. The change in my affect must have been obvious, as my staff came immediately to my aid. We talked, we listened, and then without skipping a beat, my nurse and patient care associate took my hand and, in the privacy of my office, we prayed. I must say, initially, I was taken by surprise given the professional context—but as my nurse led this amazing prayer that could lift any spirit, it didn’t seem to matter where we were, or that she was Christian and I was not—the healing effect was the same. We supported each other through a difficult time, and again, I found comfort in our common bond.
Faith and science may seem contradictory; but to me, they are complementary. Faith is the belief that things can be better—an inspirational force that drives us to do good; science is one vehicle by which we can do so. Science helps our patients obtain the best evidence-based treatment to extend their lives; but faith may help put those lives in context. Science may make me a better doctor; but faith may make me a better person.
Anees Chagpar is an oncologist who blogs at ASCO Connection, where this post originally appeared.
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