My class had our White Coat Ceremony last Friday. McGill likes to give it added prestige (perhaps) by calling it the ceremony of “Donning the Healer’s Habit”. Speakers during the event compared the white coat to the habit of a religious order. While I find this a bit of a stretch, I do think it important for us to remember that what we do in attempting to heal people has something of a mystical component.
Medicine is far from being an exact science; history shows that it has been more a matter of trial and error. I was reading tonight that until the 1980s, children who didn’t have enough growth hormone were given injections derived from deceased donors and as a result, sometimes contracted a debilitating infection (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a prion disease similar to the better-known Mad Cow Disease). Thankfully we have now developed a synthetic growth hormone, and this no longer happens. But it is one example of how sometimes medical therapy can go horribly wrong. In these days of evidence-based medicine where every practice must be backed up by substantial research, there is a little less room for trial at the bedside and thus, we hope, a little less error. Sadly, though, mistakes still happen. Even when they don’t, there is still much mystery masking the mechanisms of therapies that do work.
In spite of requiring robust scientific research, medical practice is also an art. When I use the word “art,” I refer both to the skills of observation, association, and memory that are acquired with years of practice, and also (especially) to the ability to treat a patient as an individual person with unique needs and desires. In short, the ability to care specifically for each person as an individual. I would go so far as to equate this with the ability to love. Not in an overly emotional sense, but acting with love.
To me, the combination of love and mystery make the practice of medicine something mystical (spiritual; transcending human understanding). This sounds a lot more grandiose than I think the daily drudgery of hospital-work will be, but it is important to stay humbled and inspired by one’s profession. Otherwise, what will motivate us?