Thursday, May 20, 2010

Christiaan Bernard's Essay

Christiaan Neethling Barnard (November 8, 1922 – September 2, 2001) was a South African cardiac surgeon who performed the world's first successful human-to-human heart transplant.

More and more, as I near the end of my career as a heart surgeon, my thoughts have turned to the consideration of why people should suffer. Suffering seems so cruelly prevalent in the world today. Do you know that of the 125 million children born this year, 12 million are unlikely to reach the age of one and another six million will die before age of five? And, of the rest, many will end up as mental or physical cripples.


My gloomy thoughts probably stem from an accident I had few years ago. One minute I was crossing the street with my wife after a lovely meal together, and the next minute a car hit me and knocked me into my wife. She was thrown into the other lane and stuck by a car coming from the opposite direction.


During the next few days in the hospital I experienced not only agony and fear but also anger. I could not understand why my wife and I had to suffer. I had eleven broken ribs and a perforated lung. My wife had badly fractured shoulder. Over and over, I asked myself, why should this happen to us? I had work to do, after all; there were patients waiting for me to operate on them. My wife had a young baby who needed her care.


My father, had he still been alive, would have said: “My son, it is God’s will. That’s the way God tests you. Suffering ennobles you- makes you a better person.”


But as a doctor, I see nothing noble in a patient’s thrashing around in a sweat-soaked bed, mind clouded in agony. Nor can I see any nobility in the crying of a lonely child in a ward at night.


I had my first introduction to the suffering of children when I was a little boy. One day my father showed me a half-eaten, mouldy biscuit with two tiny tooth marks in it. And he told me about my brother, who had died several years earlier. He told me about the suffering of this child, who had been born with an abnormal heart. If he had been born today, probably someone could have corrected that heart problem, but in those days they didn’t have sophisticated heart surgery. And this mouldy biscuit was the last biscuit my brother had eaten before his death.


As a doctor, I have always found the suffering of children particularly heartbreaking- especially because of their total trust in doctors and nurses. They believe you are going to help them. If you can’t they accept their fate. They go through mutilating surgery, and afterwards they don’t complain.

One morning, several years ago, I witnessed what I call the Grand Prix of Cape Town’s Red Cross Children’s Hospital. It opened my eyes to the fact that I was missing something in all my thinking about suffering – something basic that was full of solace for me.

What happened there that morning was that a nurse had left a breakfast trolley unattended. And very soon this breakfast trolley was commandeered by an intrepid crew of two- a driver and a mechanic. The mechanic provided motor power by galloping along behind the trolley with his head down, while the driver, seated on the lower deck, held on with one hand and steered by scraping his foot on the floor. The choice of roles was easy, because the mechanic was totally blind and the driver had only one arm.


They put on quite a show that day. Judging by the laughter and shouts of encouragement from the rest of the patients, it was much better entertainment than anything anyone puts on at the Indianapolis 500 car race. There was grand finale of scattered plates and silverware before the nurses and ward sister caught up with them, scolded them and put them back to bed.


Let me tell about these two. The mechanic was all of seven years old. One night, when his mother and father were drunk, his mother threw a lantern at his father, missed and the lantern broke over the child’s head and shoulders. He suffered severe third-degree burns on the upper part of his body, and lost both his eyes. At the time of the Grand Prix, he was a walking horror, with a disfigured face and a long flap of skin hanging from the side of his neck to his body. As the wound healed around the neck, his jaw became gripped in a mass of fibrous tissue. The only way this little boy could open his mouth was to raise his head. When I stopped by to see him after the race, he said, “You know, we won.” And he was laughing.


The trolley’s driver I know better. A few years earlier I had successfully closed a hole in his heart. He had returned to the hospital because he had a malignant tumor of the bone. A few days before the race, his shoulder and arm were amputated. There was little hope of recovering. After the Grand Prix, he proudly informed me that the race was a success. The only problem was that the trolley’s wheels were not properly oiled, but he was a good driver, and he had full confidence in the mechanic.


Suddenly, I realized that these two children had given me a profound lesson in getting on with the business of living. Because the business of living is joy in the real sense of the word, not just something for pleasure, amusement, recreation. The business of living is the celebration of being alive.

I had been looking at suffering from the wrong end. You don’t become a better person because you are suffering; but you become a better person because you have experienced suffering. We can’t appreciate light if we haven’t known darkness. Nor can we appreciate warmth if we have never suffered cold. These children showed me that it’s not what you’ve lost that’s important. What is important is what you have left.

1 comment:

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