Balancing Medicine and Faith

Balancing Medicine and Faith

Physicians contrast their views on spirituality at new BC symposium

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

The surgeon author of the award-winning book How We Die said he once administered a fatal dose of morphine to a terminally ill woman to ease the suffering of her deeply religious family on the eve of the holiest day of their Jewish faith.


Physicians Jerome Groopman (left) and Sherwin Nuland discussed the relationship between religious belief and medical science. (Photos by Lee Pellegrini)
Dr. Sherwin Nuland recalled the Yom Kippur 1977 incident at a Nov. 14 forum in Boston's Copley Theater sponsored by Boston College and The Atlantic Monthly, the first event in a new annual symposium on belief and non-belief in American culture.

Nuland and Dr. Jerome Groopman of Harvard Medical School were the featured guests in a dialogue that focused on how religious belief or non-belief, and divergent understandings of the meaning of life, intersect with medical decisions.

"It was more than I could bear to leave that family out in the waiting room," said Nuland, a self-described agnostic, recalling his decision to hasten the death of his patient.

He said he was mindful that, for the woman's family, the next day was the Jewish Day of Atonement, a solemn day that would be made more so by worry and grief.

"It was a personal response, perhaps a selfish response," said Nuland, of the Yale School of Medicine. "I was overwhelmed by awe and by the solemnity of the night. There was something about what the family was going through...It would be torture for them all night long.

"I would not let them keep suffering through the night, [but would] end it 12 hours earlier," said the surgeon, who said legal proscriptions against such an action were not as clearly defined 23 years ago as today. "That may have been the wrong decision," he said, but "it came out of my own sense of responsibility to [the family].

Said Nuland: "I find myself, as a person lacking belief, overwhelmed by someone else's belief."

The symposium is modeled on a series of public conversations established in Milan by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, SJ, based on his supposition that within each person lies "a believer and a non-believer," each trying to convince the other.

Nuland, whose recent book The Mysteries Within describes the influence of myth, superstition and religion on the development of medical thought, occupied what Cardinal Martini has called "the chair for the non-believer" at the forum.

"I have never been able to convince myself that life has inherent meaning," said the veteran surgeon and self-described skeptic, who said he does indeed "wonder at the marvels of nature and of the human mind," but sees spirituality emanating from physiological need, not heavenly design.

Putting the case for religious faith was Groopman, a cancer and AIDS researcher who is experimental medicine chief at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. His best-selling book The Measure of Our Days: A Spiritual Exploration of Illness inspired this fall's new ABC television series "Gideon's Crossing."

An observant Jew, Groopman said he doesn't encounter "a large tension between being a scientist and a person of faith." From the religious wellspring of his Hasidic and Orthodox forebears from Eastern Europe, he said, he drew "a deep and abiding humanism, love for one's fellow man and woman, and a sense that each person you care for as a physician is...made in the image of God."

Groopman recalled the case of one patient, the devout wife of a Protestant minister, who was stricken with terminal cancer. "I worried as I cared for her that [her] faith would be tested and ...lost," he said. Instead, the woman "found in her faith tremendous strength," he said. "It allowed her to weather the storm of her illness and pass through it without flinching."

He said his own faith was tested by another case involving a young boy who survived leukemia only to be stricken with AIDS from a tainted blood transfusion. "His father, who drove a delivery truck, deeply believed in his Catholic faith, and waited for God to intervene to save his son," said Groopman. "We failed to save [the boy's] life - and therefore God failed. I had no answer for him. I found myself unable to rationalize in any way, as a believing person, such a horrific tragedy."

Yet the boy's father was able to "create meaning" from his son's death by returning to the Church and working to help other children similarly afflicted, he said.

Boston College President William P. Leahy, SJ, and Atlantic Monthly Editor-in-Chief Michael Kelly offered welcoming remarks at the symposium, which was simulcast on the Boston College campus and in Washington, DC, for 100 alumni and guests of the Boston College Alumni Association.

 

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