Crozet Annals of Medicine: St. Theresa of the ER, I mean, Calcutta.

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By Guest Columnist Amita Sudhir, MD

I’m not Catholic, but I followed with great interest the canonization of Mother Theresa last month. Not just because I grew up in India, where her blue and white sari clad figure is as recognizable as Gandhi, and every child is familiar with her work, but because I’ve long felt that Saint Theresa, would be the perfect patron saint for the emergency physician.

As anyone even slightly familiar with her knows, she dedicated her life to, in her own words ““the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society”. In the emergency department, that is who we serve. Sure, we save lives, fix broken bones, suture wounds, and write prescriptions. But we also serve as a refuge for everyone who has no other place to go. Sometimes that is the most overwhelming part of our job. It’s the least glorified, least well compensated, and often not the most rewarding. But we do it everyday, sometimes well and sometimes not. We never know, on any given shift, if we will have the opportunity to diagnose and treat a heart attack and save someone’s life. But we do know that there will be at least one chance to soothe a broken heart and touch someone’s life, even if only in a small way. To see humanity at it’s worst and to allow that to bring out the best in us is something we can take from her work.

Mother Theresa also made dying with dignity a large part of her mission. In India, where she started her work, people died on the streets, alone and miserable. There’s always hope for the living, but she gave those people who had no second chance for a better life, a few moments of comfort and the feeling that someone cared for them. Sometimes, in emergency medicine, that’s all we can do. We can’t heal everything that comes through our doors, even if we make the right diagnosis. But we can give people dying alone a last moment of value. We can get them a blanket and a hand to hold. And sometimes that has to be enough.

Her canonization was expedited, but a stumbling block was the lack of miracles that could be attributed to her. Eventually, a couple of people were found whose incurable illnesses were cured by contact with her. But to me, the real miracle is that she persisted in her work with dogged determination despite a deeply troubling crisis of faith for nearly the last fifty years of her life. While she was initially felt called to do her work, she began to feel only emptiness when she prayed. Her doubt made her feel like a hypocrite and yet she continued with her massive undertaking for half a century. There’s a lesson in this for emergency physicians, and for anyone who cares about what they do. It’s not always easy to know if you are doing the right thing.  There isn’t always going to be a voice telling us that we are on the right path. There are many days when we get home from a shift and don’t know if we made a difference in a single person’s life, if we unintentionally harmed someone, or if we are just cogs in an ill-conceived medical machine that serves no purpose other than to perpetuate itself. But if we don’t ask those questions, leave room for those doubts, how will we ever make ourselves better at what we do? Perhaps if Mother Theresa had not suffered from a questioning of her faith, she would not have pushed herself as much as she did. Her doubt made her work harder to accomplish something while a blind faith that she was doing the right thing might have made her stop after she felt she had achieved it. In medicine, we have to accept that questioning the system and our role in people’s lives is a tool that can be harnessed to make us better, kinder, and gentler physicians.

I did get to meet Mother Theresa once, although I was too young to remember it. My mother, along with me as a toddler, was passing through Calcutta’s airport on her way somewhere else. My uncle handed her a wad of rupees and asked her to give it to Mother Theresa. In a city of several million people, my mother thought there was no chance she would run into her, but when she waiting for her plane at the airport, there she was, in her blue and white sari, surrounded by her Sisters of Charity. My mother ran up to her, toddler in arms, and handed her the money, which was probably not a very large amount. Mother Theresa thanked her as if it was a huge donation. I like to think of that chance encounter in a city of millions as my family’s own little miracle, but the miracle that I really hope for is all of us to be able to continue to serve the medical profession even when we lack the certainty that I’m doing the right thing or even the feeling of reward, to treat everyone with the greatest kindness possible, and to remember that while it’s not the role we trained for, we exist in part to provide dignity to the destitute and dying. In her words: “I must come and give until it hurts.”

3 COMMENTS

  1. Beautifully articulated Amita. The parallels apply to every one especially “But if we don’t ask those questions, leave room for those doubts, how will we ever make ourselves better at what we do? “

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