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Volume 1, Issue 1
Spring 2005:

Point of Fact

Brian T. Maurer

Cell 2 Soul. 2005 Spring; 1(1):a16

When I called up a dear friend, who happens to be an ordained minister, to inquire about the outcome of his wife's recent breast cancer surgery, he immediately replied: "The lymph nodes were clear." I know him to be a man of profound faith; yet in the midst of this personal crisis, he cited first a fact — there was no evidence of metastatic disease.

When faced with a serious diagnosis, what we crave are facts. "What are the chances of recovery?" "When will we know?" "How long must we wait?" "Is there a cure?" Pediatric oncologists know that these are among the first questions posed by parents when told that their child has a malignancy. And rightly so. Handing someone a diagnosis of cancer is guaranteed to throw his or her world out of kilter. Knowing the facts helps to return some semblance of control to the patient and family.

Yet patients, in order to heal, need to move beyond mere facts to a place of faith.

What is faith? Scripture defines faith as the substance of that which is hoped for but not yet seen. Intuitively we know that patients need to cultivate the notion that they can experience healing, even if complete cure is not possible.

Yet more often than not, as medical practitioners we feel uncomfortable moving beyond the realm of fact with our patients. We don't want to overstep our bounds. A practicing pediatrician once told me: "If I wanted to be a priest, I would have gone into the ministry, not medicine."

Several years ago my eldest son broke his back in a skiing accident. I wanted to know the details to be sure, but what I wanted most of all was reassurance that he would heal up to be the same fine strapping young man he was before the accident. None of his physicians could give me any guarantees at the outset, of course. But neither could they impart a kind word of concern or hope.

In response to my queries, the orthopedic surgeon shrugged his shoulders and lapsed into an esoteric discussion on how grafted bone is incorporated into the vertebral fusion site. The neurosurgeon explained at length how he had meticulously extracted bone chards from the spinal canal with the aid of a tiny ultrasonic transducer, a process which had taken over three hours. When my son hadn't regained control of his bladder and bowels by the third post-op day, no one knew if it was a side effect of massive amounts of morphine or residual effects of his spinal cord injury.

Ironically I received the most reassurance from an elderly man whom I met at the fitness center where I work out three days a week. "He's young; he'll heal up fine." His words proved true; yet how did he know?

For sometime afterwards I fancied him an angel, for he soon disappeared from the ranks of the faithful, never to be seen again.

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