I’m returning to a project I started just before I entered graduate school: piecing together all my thoughts and motivations for getting a PhD in biomedical engineering to remind me of why I’m doing what I’m doing when the going gets tough. Today, though, starts with my ruminations on medicine itself, mostly stimulated by the pathophysiology class I took my senior year at Baylor.
Thinking from an eternal perspective, what is the point, the goal, the telos of medicine?
It’s an important question for anyone thinking of spending most of their life practicing it. I offer a few thoughts.
One might say, simply, that the goal of medicine is to heal. Doctors, nurses, and healers aim to cure all infections, mend all deformities, and provide relief for all genetic diseases. Going a step further, one might argue that the end goal of medicine is to prevent all disease. In the end, kill every infectious bacterium and virus. No broken bones. No Down’s syndrome. No cancer.
It sounds good, right?
As someone with more than their share of illness, this prospect sounds wonderful. No exhaustion, no migraines, no mysteries, no doctors poking and prodding and assuming.
My pathophysiology class – full of pre-meds with visions of medical miracles dancing in their heads – thought the same thing. Dr. B confronted us with the story of Julian of Norwich, a 14th century English Christian mystic.
When she was about 30 years old, Julian fell extremely ill with an unspecified illness. Those around her thought she would die. (With the Black Death raging all through Europe during Julian’s lifetime, they had good reason.) During her illness, she saw visions of Jesus.
She later recovered from her illness, and those visions of Christ fueled the rest of her life. Her writings about her visions affected many, and her contemporaries sought her counsel. Some sources claim she became an anchoress of the church, which meant she shut herself in a tiny room adjoining the church for the rest of her life to pray, study, and give advice to seekers.
We know her today for her most famous quote: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
With modern medicine, Julian’s illness likely could have been prevented. We could have given her antibiotics as soon as she showed symptoms, and she never would have fallen on her deathbed at 30.
With that, we might have denied Julian her visions and the world her writings.
What, then, is the ultimate goal of medicine?
Dr. B gave us this story to question our assumptions, not to argue against treating patients, and it certainly gave me pause.
In my own case, I’m not sure what I would say. Having lived with it for nearly 1/3 of my life, West Nile and its after-effects have shaped my personality, my abilities, and my drive. But, if a treatment were available at the very beginning, I could have avoided a lot of pain and worry. What would I choose?
In another vein, here are my own musings on the telos of medicine. What’s the point of it?
We, as Christians, know that God will heal every disease in the new creation.
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” – Revelation 21:4
“[There stood] the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” – Revelation 22:2
So what’s the point? Why treat a disease here, during someone’s brief time on earth, when a Christian will be healed fully and finally in heaven? The profession seems unimportant – healing will only be needed here on earth. Art, music, dance – those professions will endure.
I have come to the conclusion that the point is to do in some small measure what God will do fully and finally at the end of time. The point is to end up without a job! In a great and wonderful mystery, God allows medical practitioners to help bring His Kingdom to earth. He allows us to participate in His redeeming and remaking of creation!
When someone receives antibiotics for tuberculosis, surgery for a broken bone, or drugs to halt a migraine, God’s Kingdom is coming to earth! This small, temporary treatment gives a tiny glimpse of what God’s new creation will be like.
That’s inspiring. That’s motivation to keep going.
What do y’all think? What’s the point of medicine? It’d be especially wonderful to hear other thoughts as I’m processing motivation for my PhD!