Medical miracles

The Lutheran Hour takes over New York’s sole remaining classical music station for part of Sunday mornings.   Its announcer, whose stylized speech inflections recall a more theatrical era of radio or a pitch for hair elixir, was today as usual promoting the benefits of Christian belief: You’re never lonely on Christmas; you have an antidote to death; you have someone who loves you.  The fact that these attributes of God are exactly what a frightened, vulnerable human being would like to be true does not mean that they are false.  Just because we witness again and again man’s overpowering desire for a special friend or fixer who can get him out of tight spots, to whom he can address urgent calls for help when he is in danger, who keeps a special ear out just for him, in recognition of his unique and precious worth, who gives him an exemption from mortality . . . just because all these things are the case does not mean that there is not a God who conforms exactly to our emotional needs.  But it is an interesting coincidence, all the same; it is perhaps “overdetermined,” as they say in the academy. 

The Lutheran preacher mentioned a blind mother in the Bible whom Jesus cured so she could see her son (why did just she qualify for the boon?).  I am always a little puzzled why educated adults still find these children’s stories from a scientifically ignorant, superstitious time so compelling.  I take it that when such primitive tales, reflecting a past era’s idea of the fantastical, are found in an alien faith, supported by no evidence outside of the text that is their sole source, they are greeted with the skepticism which they deserve. 

But if miracles you must have, how about this account of a 43-hour operation to remove a football-sized tumor from a man’s liver, an example of a cutting-edge surgical technique in which a diseased organ is removed from the body, operated on, then replaced in the body.  Science gives us real and verifiable miracles every day, astounding feats of knowledge and skill, which we take for granted while marveling at the musty Sunday school tricks of the Bible.  Society rightly values religiously-inspired charity and generosity.  But it seems to me that we do not give proper credit to the humanitarian impetus of doctors, scientists, engineers, and a whole host of other improvers of the human lot—even if some are driven simply by the joy of knowledge and conquest of the unknown. 

As the [liver tumor] operation wore on through a day and a night, and then another day, exhausted nurses and surgeons rotated in and out. Dr. [Tomoaki] Kato, calm and soft-spoken, rarely left the room. . . . Dr. Kato’s focus, patience and stamina did not ebb.

Dr. Kato could be religiously inspired in his work, of course.  The article does not say.  But science does not depend on such inspiration. 

We also do not always sufficiently appreciate the drama and heroism behind medical accomplishments, I think.  After the newly-detumored liver was replaced in the patient’s body, 

[it] bled profusely. Transfusions could barely keep up. Over the next few hours [the patient] needed 30 pints of blood. But even as the bleeding abated, his blood pressure and body temperature dropped, and his blood turned dangerously acidic. Drugs to correct one problem made others worse. He was sinking into a vicious cycle that could kill him. At 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, after 35 hours of surgery, Dr. Kato and his colleagues did something they had never tried during an ex vivo procedure: even though Mr. Collison’s digestive tract was not fully reconnected, they halted the surgery, put a patch over the incision without sewing it up and took him to the intensive care unit to be stabilized.
The seemingly desperate maneuver worked. On Thursday night, Mr. Collison was ready for surgery again. Dr. Kato worked on him from 8:30 p.m. until 4:30 a.m. and finished all the needed repairs — after a total of 43 hours of surgery.

Believers, including believing scientists and doctors, will say that there is nothing inconsistent between the miracle of medical science and God’s loving miracles—we can appreciate both.  God created man precisely so that he could use his divine gift of reason to master his fate and unlock the secrets of the universe.  But I find it exceedingly strange, as I have said before, that a loving, omnipotent God would put us through such Herculean labors, such as in the present instance, to try to save one life, given that he could have easily prevented the liver tumor from occurring in the first place, at absolutely no cost to himself.   Alternatively, if God was distracted as the tumor developed and grew, he could have shrunk it after the fact.  If God had a total non-intervention policy, that would be one thing.  But according to believers, he retains the unquestioned capacity and occasional inclination to cure such cancers, since believers pray to him all the time to do so, and credit him when they survive a potentially fatal illness.  The problem is that he operates with utter capriciousness, allowing some worthy individuals to be felled by crippling, painful disease, while allegedly saving others.  If doctors proceeded with that degree of deliberate capriciousness, they’d be prosecuted and stripped of their practice. 

(On a health reform note: This stupendous “ex vivo” operation is just another example of why we’re unlikely to rein in medical costs, even if every good idea for making the health care system more efficient, more transparent, more governed by consumer choice, were miraculously to be enacted.  Scientific ingenuity is going to keep serving up ever more beautiful but increasingly expensive treatments to beat back disease and death.  Both Republicans and Democrats argue–when it’s strategic to do so–that everyone should have access to every medical procedure regardless of cost or ability to pay.  If that is the case, health care costs are only going to go up.)

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