On my best days as a physician at the bedside, this is the scene: My patient is sitting in the bed, and she and I are making eye contact and communicating directly to one another.
Additionally, as I have been practicing since I was a second-year Tulane medical student on the storied wards of Charity Hospital in New Orleans, I am following Mother Teresa’s enduring advice and acknowledging Another who is there.
When asked how she picked up cachectic (suffering from poor health, malnutrition and weight loss), fly-covered, dying people from the gutters of Kolkata, she responded, “I look in their eyes and say, ‘This is Jesus Christ.’”
Jesus is there with my patient and me, too.
Additionally in the room, I imagine the presence of the doctors of the Church and physician-saints, such as Drs. Gianna Molla and Joseph Moscati, who practiced medicine in 20th-century Italy.
Seeking intercession from the saints, and prayer in general, is key to my medical ministry.
For me, prayer is a verbal consent to accept God’s will in my life, down to the smallest detail. Praying with the saints, then, is merely having them with me in the conversation. I am talking to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit with friends and mentors at my side. These advisers help direct my gaze towards the Divine.
So in the morning as I prepare to walk to a patient’s bedside, I kneel, thanking the dear Lord for his many gifts and asking, “How may I serve you as I come to the bedside of my sick patient? How might I be an instrument of your healing and peace?”
I confess I need lots of help if I am going to make optimum decisions in caring for my patients’ physical, mental and spiritual needs (e.g., a brief “spiritual history” is a respectful method of addressing patients’ preferences). Just as I value and regularly engage the wisdom and experience of my medical colleagues — and would not dare proceed as if I had all the answers myself — so also do I engage the spiritual counsel of my “colleagues on high” who have already walked the paths I currently trod. I am, then, thankful for heavenly assistance so that I might use the full spectrum of what the Holy Spirit is offering me, all in an effort to help those entrusted to my care hurt less and smile more.
I have learned that this sacred journey is much more direct, quick and sure if I walk it consciously alongside the Blessed Virgin, too. She keeps me staring at Jesus, guiding me along a more graceful path than I would otherwise choose.
Heaven knows I am surrounded, as well, by the likes of Sts. Joseph, Francis, Aquinas, Ignatius, Pio and Damien, not to mention Anne, Clare, Catherine, Teresa, Thérèse, Faustina and Bakhita … nudging me this way and that, as our wisest friends always do.
Let me paint for you a specific scene: In the ICU, my septic patient is there, lying on an air-filled mattress. Beside her is a continuously cycling ventilator, pushing air into her lungs, and her kidneys are being supported by the spinning dialysis machine. She looks up at me, and we connect.
I recognize God in her eyes, and I think of the witness of Dr. Molla, who reminds me to care for my patient as a mother would. As she said, “Physicians have opportunities that a priest does not have. … We doctors touch Jesus in the bodies of our patients.” Dr. Moscati reminds me that my role is to see the full person. Together, they direct my mind to God, knowing that in helping the patient I am serving him.
E. Wesley Ely, M.D., M.P.H., is a professor of medicine and critical care at Vanderbilt University and president of the Nashville Guild of the Catholic Medical Association.