2016-07-27

I vividly remember a day in 1984 when I thought a woman would bleed to death on my operating table. She had come to the hospital with an enlarged heart and needed immediate surgery.

 

At first, the operation seemed to go well. But then, she wouldn't stop bleeding; we couldn't sew up her chest cavity. With every moment, she came closer to bleeding to death.

 

I did everything medical science recommended: I gave her frozen plasma, platelets, and drugs to promote clotting. Nothing worked. So I turned to the last option I had: I prayed for her. Somehow, things got better. The bleeding stopped and her heart started beating again. She later sat up in bed, surrounded by her family. Ten days later, she went home.

 

I'll never know what role my prayer played in saving that young woman's life, but it's rare that I get through any type of complex surgery without asking the Almighty for help. Most of my colleagues in transplant surgery do the same.

 

Of course, there are many atheists who are excellent doctors, but I've never met another transplant surgeon who didn't occasionally pray in the operating room. Even people who never set foot inside a church, synagogue or mosque will offer a few silent, prayerful words at a key moment.

 

For transplant surgeons, of course, prayer cannot substitute for medical expertise. Through a vast program of scientific research over the past 50 years, we've improved our understanding of every part of the circulatory system, reduced the incidence of cardiovascular disease and improved the length and quality of life for people with damaged and diseased hearts.

 

Learning to do a heart transplant today requires about 12 years of education, training and internships after college. Although today's medical schools almost always require ethics courses that address questions of faith, nearly all other classes properly focus on the hard factual realities of science.

Still, the very process of heart transplantation has a strong element of mystery. A surgeon removes a worn or damaged heart, takes a new one out of an ice bucket, places it into an empty chest cavity, sews the blood vessels together, and fills the new heart with blood. Then, the moment of truth arrives. A hush will fall over the operating room, and during a minute or two that seems like an eternity, the surgical team looks down at the flaccid heart, waiting for a sign of life.

 

It is essentially a spiritual moment: an individual is about to receive a new heart and new life. Seeing that new heart begin to beat is to witness a miracle -- a miracle that medical science can describe, but never fully explain.

 

I cannot speak for all doctors, but for my part, acknowledging the healing power of faith, the limits of our knowledge and the mystery of human life is an essential part of the practice of medicine. It helps us find new cures and treatments, while maintaining the sense of humility needed to treat, in the words of the psalmist, a "fearfully and wonderfully made" person.

 

Just as importantly, faith lends perspective in the face of the mortal tragedy every doctor faces. Nearly all good surgeons realize this and, in their own ways, nearly all practice it.

My own experiences in transplant surgery have taught me that true atheists are about as common in operating rooms as they are in foxholes.


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