I often find myself in the humor and satire section of The New Yorker. I absolutely love a good laugh and am usually labelled as the troll in one of my circles of friends. However, as I was perusing, I ran across a piece that was delivered as a commencement address earlier this month at UCLA’s Medical School by Atul Gawande — a surgeon, public-health researcher, and author of the best-seller Being Mortal.
Growing up in an Asian-American household, it isn’t surprising that at one point or another I was aspiring to become a doctor, so naturally this piece caught my eye. My younger brother did decide to pursue medicine, but you won’t find me with a stethoscope around my neck any time soon. Although, if you find yourself in Orange County, you will find me administering some high doses of caffeine in the form of coffee.
Atul Gawande starts off his talk to graduates with a short story about one night during a surgery rotation:
I followed my chief resident into the trauma bay in the emergency department. We’d been summoned to see a prisoner who’d swallowed half a razor blade and slashed his left wrist with the corner of the crimp on a toothpaste tube. He was about thirty, built like a boxer, with a tattooed neck, hands shackled to the gurney, and gauze around his left wrist showing bright crimson seeping through.
The first thing out of his mouth was a creepy comment about the chief resident, an Asian-American woman. I won’t say what he said. Just know he managed in only a few words to be racist, sexist, and utterly menacing to her. She turned on her heels, handed me the clipboard, and said, “He’s all yours.”
I looked at the two policemen with him to see what they were going to do. I don’t know what I expected. That they’d yell at him? Beat him? But they only looked at me impassively, maybe slightly amused. He was all mine.
So what now?
He continues by saying that the foundational principle of medicine is that all lives are of equal worth. Physicians “believe a C.E.O. and a cabbie with the same heart disease deserve the same chance at survival.”
At some point in the career of most medical students and doctors, they recite or are at least familiarized with the Hippocratic Oath. The oath is a an ethical standard that physicians try to uphold in their practice. In its modern text, the oath includes non-maleficence in which, the physician promises to abstain from causing harm to others—this would include the refusal to treat a patient they dislike or disagree with.
So at its core, the noble and seemingly humble Keanu Reeves and even a school shooter are on the same playing field if they enter a hospital needing emergency surgery. The only two things they now have in common is impending death and the physician that stands in the way of sure death. At the intersection of life and death, the physician does not discriminate. He would take both into surgery and operate in an attempt to save their lives. Gawande continues:
Regarding people as having lives of equal worth means recognizing each as having a common core of humanity. Without being open to their humanity, it is impossible to provide good care to people—to insure, for instance, that you’ve given them enough anesthetic before doing a procedure. To see their humanity, you must put yourself in their shoes. That requires a willingness to ask people what it’s like in those shoes. It requires curiosity about others and the world beyond your boarding zone.
This takes me back to David Zahl’s talk at the recent Mockingbird conference in New York. Later, Gawande says that “once we lose the desire to understand—to be surprised, to listen and bear witness—we lose our humanity.” We live in a culture where everything is under attack. It matters not if you come from the far Left, the far Right, or if you land somewhere in the middle. Rarely is anyone willing to give ground in any direction. We don’t want to “walk a mile in [their] shoes” and inevitably fail to acknowledge one another’s humanity.
The story doesn’t end there for us, though. In our failures to recognize the other as living and struggling on the same playing field, we are gracefully greeted by a Physician that chooses to deal with us not by our works and deeds but by the work of his Son.
While death might be the great equalizer (and a pretty great place to start), both Gawande and Zahl are saying that underneath all the policy debates, religious beliefs, cultural differences, artistic directions, there is still some common ground between souls.
Most of us probably will never have to make the decision to stick a surgical knife into another person. However, our humanity runs further and wider beyond actual hospital beds. We might not all be in the business of healing people, but we are all inevitable patients with more in common than we care to admit. It’s not difficult to think of moments where we want nothing to do with another human being. We choose to avoid their humanity and dissociate with the person as much as possible. I have more in common with that one customer who keeps handing over annoyingly crumpled bills than I’d ever enjoy to acknowledge. Chances are, however, we may be surprised to discover that we enjoy the same music, the same taste in food, and have incredibly bratty dogs.
In every moment of our lives, we are faced with what the Cold War Kids sing in one of their songs, conveniently titled “Hospital Beds”:
I got one friend laying across from me
I did not choose him, he did not choose me
We’ve got no chance of recovery
Sharing hospital joy and misery
I would only push back on that third line of lyrics. The prognosis for our recovery is far, far better than we could ever hope for. Fortunately, aside from my brother and other doctors, there is one other whose cup of tea is exactly resurrection. We can take comfort in the fact that we are all on the same playing field when it comes to death.
So come in your bare feet and your hospital gowns with your buttocks showing in every direction to dance with everyone, because all are welcome. The Doctor will not turn you away.
Citation for New Yorker Article: