Sacrament and Talisman


Medicine, it can be argued, is a religion.

It has its pantheon of stars, including the likes of Hippocrates of medical oath fame and Sir William Osler (“Listen to the patient, he is telling you the diagnosis.”).

It has its temples of worship, huge gleaming buildings of glass and steel and stone where monks and sisters minister daily and priests offer up sacrifices to appease the gods of death and disease. The Holy of Holies lies deep within the superstructure, or its practitioners would have you believe. It is a sterile sanctum, green, with stainless steel instruments and bright lights that illuminate and facilitate cleansing. Life is lost and regained there. Legends are born there.

It has its liturgy and its order of worship, time honored and beloved by many. Written and passed down through generations of physicians, it is followed with little deviation. Changing it takes a collective will.

It has its sacred books. Passages of handbooks and thick, expensive tomes and manuals are read, digested and committed to memory by thousands of novices and quoted verbatim by attendings.

Medicine as religion also has its sacraments, outward visible signs of something internal or not seen. It has its talismans, carried and worn lovingly by new and old practitioners alike, invoking the old gods of spell and chant and embracing the new gods of tablet and electron. What are some of these?

White coats confer authority and rank. Length of coat denotes length of training and experience. Pristine garments, while impressive, are not as indicative of prowess as those with fading blood stains and the dried bile of suffering and pain witnessed and now borne by the wearer.

A stethoscope worn around the neck is an unmistakable sign of a practitioner of the healing arts. It is a simple statement of knowledge gained, skills learned and the tacit authority given by society to touch, to listen, and to heal.

The simple pen, be it Mont Blanc or Bic, needle point or fountain pen nib, is mighty in the hands of a physician. With this instrument, the doctor can cure pneumonia, order the scan that will diagnose cancer, prep a patient for open heart surgery, or commit them involuntarily for mental health evaluation.

Beepers, smart phones, tablets and other gadgets are the new vehicles for communicating, learning and interacting in the Church of Modern Technology. Whereas a utility belt full of beepers was indicative of status and power in the medical world of old, bluetooth, WiFi and Google Glass carry us forward on an unstoppable wave of technological progress that threatens to engulf us and surgically excise our souls.

Medicine as religion is alive and well.

It has its practitioners, its priests, its temples.

It holds us up in times of trial. It supports us and separates us from dark doubt and ignorance and unexplainable disease.

At the same time, it threatens to become an autonomous beast, a scourge on the land, a metastatic malady so perfectly invasive, so exquisitely symbiotic that it will finally cause the death of the very thing it is trying to save.

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