I am a physician, not an expert in theology or philosophy. I do, however, consider myself an expert in one thing: stress. Like many of my colleagues, I am a connoisseur of stress: if it came in thirty-one flavors, I would have tasted every one. A recent poll listed medical internship as one of the top five most stressful jobs in the United States.On the first day of internship, the only people more nervous than the new interns at a research hospital are the patients who know that they are being cared for by green recruits. My first night on call I was awakened by a page from an anxious nurse who said, "Come quick. Mr. Jones's heart rate is in the 200s and I can't find his pulse." I sped off toward the unit, simultaneously flipping through the little book that tells me what to do in emergencies, my heart rate rivaling that of Mr. Jones, and tripped. I made the final leg of my journey on my stomach as if "sliding into home plate". I glanced at the EKG then gave my first order as a physician. "Let's get ready to shock him." Much to my relief, my resident calmly walked in and shepherded me through the resuscitation.That was the beginning of a love-hate relationship with my pager. On busy days it would go off 40 to 50 times, calling me to emergencies or asking for sleeping pills or enemas. Eating, sleeping and other functions became subject to its dictates. My life ran on my pager and caffeine, plus the adrenaline rush brought on by the fear making a mistake.Within a few months, the interns' idealism began to give into a kind of cynicism reflected in the slang of the hospital subculture. Very sick patients not likely to leave the hospital soon became "rocks." One might ask an intern on the geriatrics service," How big is your rock garden?" Getting a new patient from the E.R. was called "taking a hit." "Torture" analogies dominated. "I really got flogged with pages last night..." Or, "I was hit hard."The emotional, physical and existential stress of telling a young mother she was full of cancer and making literally fatal errors took its toll on us. The changes in personality produced by this stress were described as "becoming toxic." We learned to overlook our colleagues' depression and irritability as "toxicity." Each of us faced the same questions, "Why am I doing this? What is the meaning of my patient's suffering? What is the value of my work?"
There was no time to think about the answers. Products of a contemplatively challenged society with few spiritual roots, most of us kept working and kept going, hoping that the angst would pass with time. My workplace was desperately in need of a soul. For me, that need was met by the teaching of St. Josemaria Escriva, the Spanish priest who founded Opus Dei. Father Escriva emphasized the possibility of contemplation in the midst of a frenetic work life. This message helped me to transform my work from an experience of sheer stress into a place where I can encounter God.I had first encountered serious contemplation during my junior year abroad in India. I sat on a Himalayan peak in Northern India, surrounded by Tibetan prayer flags, thin bits of cloth whipping in the wind, as if echoing the prayers of pilgrims before me who had climbed the mountain in search of peace and spiritual help. I added my brightly colored flags to the faded and tattered ones. I felt very far from home, and from my spiritual upbringing. Baptized Catholic, I had fallen away, despite the example of a very devout mother and a Catholic education. I was turned off by what I considered to be the "corruption of organized religion" and the materialism of my society.In India, I felt I had escaped the "world" with all its negative influence. I had moments of light and inspiration. Once, in Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile, I noticed bells would ring at odd times. I asked an elderly Tibetan woman what the bells were for, and she laughed: "They are to remind you that it is now." At the time I did not grasp her meaning. (Only later, much later, through the words of St. Josemaria, did I come to understand.)As soon as I returned from India, my Buddhist veneer wore off. Fighting with my brothers and full of complaints, I was longing for my mountain. I had no way of integrating my "spirituality" with the reality of each day.About that time my mother introduced me to some women in Opus Dei. I was immediately fascinated by their ideal of being contemplatives in the middle of the world. I was moved by their love for and intimacy with God, who was a person to them, someone loving and understanding. These women were busy professionals, but somehow they had a depth and peace that helped them absorb the bumps in the road that threw me off kilter. Through my friends in Opus Dei and the life and teaching of St. Josemaria, I came to a deeper understanding of the truths of the Catholic faith. I began to pray and came back to the Sacraments. I no longer needed a mountain retreat to feel close to God. I had discovered Him in the center of my soul.The quest to live with constant knowledge of God's presence and providence was the authentic existence I had been searching for. So much of my life had been spent trying to be in control. I unrealistically worried about "saving" all of my patients, never making mistakes, or always "looking good." I realize how little I listened to people, how worries about work and the people I loved crowded my consciousness.