In my life, I have had life-changing surgery twice. When I was 17 years old, I had open heart surgery that fixed a hole in my heart that instantly gave me a normal physical life after I had spent my childhood unable to keep up with my classmates because of a lack of stamina. I felt true exhilaration when I found that I could ride my bike around the block not once but multiple times without stopping. It was like a whole new world was opened up for me.
Last month, I had brain surgery to return the functionality that I had lost to Parkinson’s disease. Because it is restoring what I previously had, it doesn’t pack the emotional wallop that getting new capability has, but that doesn’t detract from its benefit. It promises to keep me productive for many years to come and without the side effects of the multiple Parkinson’s medications that I have been taking.
I have been contemplating these two events. It is quite extraordinary to think that I had enough confidence in the surgeon’s ability that I (or my parents) would allow them to cut open my heart twice and to drill holes in my skull to insert electrodes into my brain. It is remarkable to think of all the things that made that possible. For the brain surgery, there were 10-15 people assisting the surgeon. A lot goes into life-changing surgery. And I was impressed by the teamwork. The surgeons themselves just ooze confidence, which is required to convince someone to put their life in their hands and also to handle that type of responsibility.
There is a need to keep perspective, though. Medicine, at its best, is a vocation of sorts. Its very nature is to reduce suffering. But there are concerns that must be kept in mind when viewing or experiencing the medical marvels available today. The first and most important thing to remember is that God remains the Lord of life no matter the medical marvel because God has perfect foresight and therefore, sees the optimal time for each death to optimize the salvation of souls. There are some doctors that offer physician assisted suicide, terminal sedation (where the patient is sedated and then not given nutrition or hydration, resulting in death within a week), or abortions. To destroy rather than heal is an abhorrent misuse of the skills God gave to the doctors.
Another way that physicians harm their patients and their own souls is to improperly extend life. Life is worth living if you are able to contribute to the well being of another. If extending your life does not allow this, then the extension is counterproductive. It is also counterproductive if you spend all your time and effort on extending your life, forgetting that you have obligations still in this life and that you need to plan for your own death, spiritually through the sacraments and with your survivors to pass on whatever you think is valuable. When doctors extend life by extraordinary means: at great cost, with overwhelming pain, with great risks, if the cure is repugnant to the patient or if the potential cure is unproven then the patient is within his rights morally to refuse treatment.
Doctors and patients alike have to recognize the limits of medicine and the value of a good death. Scottish theologian John Swinton tells the story of Lisa, a young woman with two young daughters suffering from terminal breast cancer. A friend suggested that she write the story of her life to leave a legacy for her two daughters to remember her by. But then she and her doctor felt they had a potential cure so Lisa put off her legacy writing. Two weeks later she died, having expended all her time and energy on the failed cure and leaving nothing behind for her children. This sobering story belies the commonly held view that death is a failure of medicine.
Medical Science has within its powers the ability to open new horizons and all people to contribute more to society. When doctors perform life altering surgeries like they have for me, the are truly acting as secondary causes for God, doing His will with the skills and resources He has given them. It is an awesome thing to experience for the patient and the doctor as well.
But the fact remains that doctors are human and make mistakes. The biggest mistake is when they try to play God by either hastening death or extending life past the point of natural death. Death is not a failure of medicine, it is a necessary part of the universal design. Everyone must die to leave room and resources for the next generation and to allow society to evolve. More important to Christians is that death is not to be feared because it is the gateway to eternal life. It is when people, both doctors and patients alike, fail to recognize this point of view that problems ensue.