Medicine and Seeing

Lord, give me eyes to see…

I’ve been praying this prayer a lot recently, in the first few weeks of medical school. Sight is a gift. To see our lives, the lives of others, and the events of our world in the lens of truth and love – that spirit is something we cannot conjure up on our own. The God of truth and love must gift it to us.

Each morning, I wrestle for this sight, as Jacob had wrestled God for His blessing. Jacob had spent his entire life crafting his own blessing. There is the time when he steals his brother’s birthright with a well-timed meal. And the time he tricks his blind father into blessing him instead of Esau with a clever scheme. He amasses a vast amount of wealth as Laban’s shepherd, taking the strong of the flock for himself, and leaving his uncle the weak ones. Jacob then runs away with Laban’s two daughters and his massive herd to begin his own life – to look for his own paradise. That is the picture of Jacob before his encounter with God: he is always running.

He is still on the run when suddenly he is forced to account for his life. Esau, his long-estranged brother, is said to be approaching from the far side of the wilderness, likely to kill him. Jacob ‘runs’ one more time, trying to appease his brother with a series of gifts, and ultimately, dividing his camp into two so that if one is attacked, he is left with the other. As he sends his camps off, he is left by himself (Gen 32:24) – his first time in true solitude. Desperate, cornered, on the verge of calamity, and finally alone, he does what perhaps God had been trying to get him to do all along. He simply asks. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.

I will not let you go unless you bless me!” That is a holy prayer.

Lord, give me eyes to see…

‘Education’ is a misnomer for what happens in the four years of medical school. Becoming a doctor is about more than just the accumulation of medical knowledge. Medical school is assimilation – the inculcation of a set of values which is no less cultural because it’s scientific. Medical school is a foreign country, complete with its own language, and therefore, its own way of seeing.

Before anatomy class began, our professor told us his philosophy for teaching anatomy, which was to help us ‘see what doctors see.’ He told us that as we open our donors’ bodies and delve beneath their skin into their viscera, we will look, but not see, because we do not yet have the framework to make sense of what is in front of us. What is this intricate mesh of meat, fat, and bone? I do not know, and so the world of the body is still fresh. It is still sacred.

But when will that eternal light dim?

There’s a passage in Annie Dillard’s ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ that I often reread. Apparently, when physicians first discovered how to perform safe cataracts operations, patients who had been blind all their lives were suddenly able to see. Having never associated words and meaning to visual stimuli, they saw the world differently than the already-sighted. They didn’t see chairs, tables, books, food, shadow, form, or size – they saw patches of light and dark, blobs of color, brushes of unencumbered, freeform marks.

“A twenty-two-old girl was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize the objects, but, ‘the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: ‘Oh God! How beautiful!’”

It will be a tragic day when I stop exclaiming ‘Oh God! How beautiful!’ When, instead of the intricate mesh, I only speak of mediastinum, costal cartilage, inferior vena cava, ad infinitum…the babble (Babel?) of those of who know, but do not see.

Not long after that anatomy class, Dr. Lisa Sanders, who had started the New York Times column that inspired House, M.D., led a session for first year students on the topic of observation. ‘Writing is observing,’ she said, ‘and you must practice writing in order to keep observing.’ She then showed us a picture of a scene in the wards, in which a medical student was leaning over a patient to observe something on her shoulder. Dr. Sanders asked our class, “What do you see? What do you notice about the patient and the student?” Our class spent 5 minutes sharing our observations. We talked about how the patient looked afraid and how the student’s posture seemed to belie a certain eagerness. We noticed emotions and facial expressions, and imagined movements from the stillness of the photograph. At the end of the exercise, Dr. Sander turned to our class and warned, “What you see now, you will no longer be able to see 10 years later. You, still being laymen, notice things I no longer care to notice as a doctor. Medicine is a bridge you cross; there is no turning back, even when you wish so much to be back on the other side.”

And that is why I pray for sight, with Jacob’s desperation. The battle for eternity happens in minutiae, and our souls soar or fall in trivialities we are prone to overlook amidst the comfortable humdrum of our lives. I pray before anatomy class that the God of healing may help me to know wholeness – that the ease with which the blade slits the skin does not dull me to the beauty of embodiment. I pray to see the weight of glory in people I pass by everyday. They are not merely ‘a nurse,’ or ‘a student,’ or ‘the person who takes care of your paperwork’; they are eternal, divine beings – imago dei – whom, as C.S. Lewis says, I’d be tempted to worship if I saw their true glory.

I pray, finally, that the Gospel would remain news. Too many times I let the Gospel become familiar, which also means that it becomes comfortable. It is not. I have to encounter the person of Christ daily and come to terms with its truth, and the demands and costs that truth makes on my life. There is no easy way out. He is calling for me (“Remember your first love!), and it means my death. The scales must daily be taken off from my eyes.

And with this I plunge into this medical world. I will learn its language, but I refuse to let that language define what is real and what is true, for I am afraid to be in a world I can box, devoid of mystery and beauty, where everything I see I can shatter in a thousand classifiable, knowable shards, and piece them back together to fit my convenience. So I worship, pray, and wrestle.

Lord, give me eyes to see…

Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” (2 Kings 6:17)


The passage on ‘Seeing’ from Dillard’s ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,’ which I quote from, and which I highly recommend, can be found here: http://dcrit.sva.edu/wp-content/uploads/1974/01/Seeing.pdf

Advertisements

join the conversation

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s