Sunday, October 23, 2016

On Why We Do What We Do

I read this morning that Junko Tabei died in Japan. Tabei was the first woman to conquer the "Seven Summits", the tallest peaks on each of the seven continents around the world. Her long career in mountain climbing occurred over the last 40+ years. She died, at 77, of cancer. She kept up some mountaineering while undergoing treatment.

After I read that, I lingered in bed awhile, thinking about a life worth remembering. I started thinking about my own lifespan, and my parents'. I thought that if I die at 77, then I have about 22 years left. I thought about what happened in my life, what I did and didn't do, over the last 22 years. My mom is 78, and she's still alive. Ok, maybe I get 23. My dad's 81, so maybe I could last 26 more years. My wife has survived cancer and she's 59; her father died of cancer at 68, but her mother--living with multiple sclerosis for over 50 years--didn't die until she was 91...

Or maybe I get hit by a truck tomorrow! You never know.

Don't imagine that I was looking back (or forward) with regret for what I've done and haven't done. Granted, we all have things we regret, but for the most part, I let go of that some time ago. I feel like I'm doing what I want to do and what I should do. I goof off, too, but that's part of life's fun, isn't it?

No, this isn't a retrospective on my life or anyone's, and it's not a wet-eyed missive on the importance of "living life to the fullest." Rather, it made me think about why we--in this business of healing and health care--do what we do.

People get into this business for a variety of reasons: a stable job, intellectual challenge, a love of others, and a wish to relieve suffering. The highest aim, though, is sung by The Fray's Isaac Slade: "to save a life." This is what I was thinking about, "saving" life. From this spun a web of other things.

I'm a homeopath. I'm also a scientist. As a scientist I know that science may one day decidedly judge that homeopathic medicine isn't a thing. The remedies are sugar pills. The improvements are illusions, accidents, and placebo effects. And my career of treating patients with this method was a waste of effort. The materialist model of treatment was correct all along.

Or, I could be right. Science may show that everything we have observed and theorized about homeopathy since Hahnemann coined the term is pretty close to the truth, and we, the crackpots, were on the leading edge.

If I'm wrong, was my life wasted? If I'm right, was it justified?

Hahnemann left the "regular" medicine of his time because he felt it caused more suffering than good. In Aphorism 1 of the Organon he states that the physician's highest calling is to make the sick healthy. His conception of this strange new medicine, this "homeopathic" medicine, was that it should make healing genuine, that it should extend, or save, a life. He differed with his "regular" colleagues in what saving a life looks like, but the result is the same: more time.

More time to do what?

That's when it occurred to me that more life and better life are not especially relevant to framing these questions of duration and value. I've seen cases in which a baby dying in childbirth caused a tectonic change for good in the life of a family. A very short life that changed the lives of others.

Nothing we do will last. No life we save will be saved forever. Lives we save may not change. In the end, there is only The End. Then why do we do it?

It was then I thought of what I have observed in my practice. I am not always successful, and sometimes when I am successful, I later learn that the person died anyway, of that problem or of something else, either spectacular or mundane. I connect this to others--doctors, nurses, therapists--and it is the same. No matter what we do, the victory will be fleeting.

So we all say, it's not how long you lived, it's what you did with your life. But how do I, or any of us, contextualize this then?

It was then I thought that Hahnemann was right for his time, but not right for all time. The highest calling for any of us is to relieve the suffering of others. And that's a calling that demands more than any medicine we can deliver with all our technologies, homeopathic, allopathic, or otherwise.

When I began this journey, I hoped that I had found a way of cheating Death. As a child I feared disease. Hospitals scared me. My precocious head was filled with fears of brain tumors and leukemia, and more exotic fears like scleroderma and myasthenia gravis. In nursing school--a school I entered because I sought a portable, well-paying job while on my way to earning a living in the arts--I learned about so many more diseases, injuries, catastrophes that beset us at every turn.

After I graduated I began to explore alternative medicine because I found it interesting. I was attracted to the rococo beauty of things like traditional Chinese medicine. Homeopathy, however, seemed above the other things I was learning about, so tiny, so subtle, and most of all it appeared to me to be a link to some medical magic that could forestall the seeming random assault of these many diseases.

In homeopathic medical school, I met a former student, a young physician, who was said by our teacher to be something of a genius at the art. He was what the rest of us aspired to be. He also had colon cancer, and in his 30s, he died of this disease, despite homeopathy and everything else. I've seen similar things among those who diet and exercise and eat only organic foods and practice yoga and don't smoke and don't drink alcohol and pray every day--and those who climb mountains.

So it seems the only "magic" is in us, not the wands we wave or the potions we carry. And that magic is limited to relief, to kindness, to creating a space for hope. That's it. That's all we get. So I guess I'm making the best of that, whether I have a few more days or 30 more years.

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