The Art and Science of Medicine
Volume XXVI Number 1
When the call about my father came, I listened in on an extension at his old desk. The phone sat next to a juice-can pencil holder I'd made him when I was 8. The doctor asked my mother, should he take extraordinary measures? By the time we raced to the hospital, Dad was dead.
He died a quarter-century ago, Memorial Day weekend 1978, when medicine's methods were less precise. The diagnosis was a brain tumor, a filigreed thing that no technology then could track. It was uncovered only in autopsy. The medical examiner called the tumor astral, like a star.
It's a heavenly word for a hard way to die. In a year, the tumor had stilled one arm and one leg. It froze half Dad's face, leaving him a perpetual squint and a steeply tilted smile. It garbled his hearing, twisted his memory, and choked his speech into chains of one frustrated, ironic, word: "O.K."
His physicians must have been as frustrated as he was. Looking over my mother's shoulder as she stood on the front line of my father's care, I saw their pressed lips and tightened jaws, their shaking heads.
In this era of high-tech medical marvels, we tend to forget the very human heart, and art, of medicine. Thousands of years ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates famously described it this way: "Life is short, and the Art long, the occasion fleeting, experience fallacious, and judgment difficult."
What must it have been like for my father's doctors? How did they face the limits of their science, the practice of their art to no effect? What did they say to my father in the face of a fleeting, losing battle? I can't imagine.
I hope they were like child prodigy Sho Yano, a 12-year-old medical student currently at the University of Chicago. UC admissions examiners grilled the preteen on his ability to work with patients--at one point, they asked him what he would say to a severely ill mother who had just delivered twins. He replied, "She must be very scared."
I hope the doctors told my dad they were frustrated, too.
I hope he understood.L.B.