Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The God Illusion, A Cautionary Tale

The last few weeks have been pretty hard for my family. Within the space of two weeks we lost both our Moms and I’m having a hard time accepting that either death was, at least when they occurred, unpreventable. These were not sudden deaths, but each was a case of deterioration occurring over the space of a couple of week’s time. I think they both occurred when they did, and how they did, in part, because of the illusion of God like powers that we help to foster in the medical profession. At times like those, we are at our weakest, often stressed beyond our ability to think clearly and ready to believe in the illusion that they are gods. We fail to ask the questions, and demand the answers, that we should. We tend to defer to the gods without question.

What contributes, intentionally or not, to this God illusion? They clothe themselves in smocks or scrubs, the uniforms that, aside from their practical utility, identify them as different from the rest of us. A uniform that sets them apart from mere mortals. Additionally they surround themselves with technology that generally is, to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke, sufficiently advanced that it is often indistinguishable from magic. To further the illusion we, ourselves, imbue them with a God like aura of infallibility and expect them to perform miracles when we know, deep in our souls, that there are no more miracles, there is only a combination of skill and even more luck, if we’re lucky.

With such a build up as that, it becomes easy to see how they sometimes overstep the bounds of their training. An Oncologist has seen chemo patients develop pulmonary embolisms so often, and treated them successfully himself, that instead of deferring to a lesser god and calling in a Pulmonologist, he gets it wrong and the treatment is the kill rather than the cure. No malice on his part, rather he bought into that God illusion we all had a part in creating.

So now I know, in spite of all the magic, the training and the skill, they’re only human beings completely devoid of God like powers. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold”. The illusion no longer holds.

The reason I wrote this, was not to garner sympathy for our losses. I wrote it as a warning to those of you who have not had to go through something like this. The warning is to not let your decisions be influenced by the technology, the separation and complete trust in the abilities of doctors to perform God like miracles, especially if the “miracle” needed falls outside their specialty.

My Mother-in-Law’s Oncologist is great, as an Oncologist. I’d choose him if I had cancer. That said, I do feel that he should have called in a Pulmonologist when he diagnosed her with a pulmonary embolism. I think he had too much confidence in his ability to treat a problem that fell outside his specialty. That was his problem. Our problem was not insisting that he do so. We let our decisions be colored by that god illusion and failed to take advantage of the fact that when there are many “gods”, there’s probably a damn good reason for it and you go with the one who has the needed skills. You don’t pray to the god of fire when what you need is rain.....

Copyright Don Smith 2009