Category Archives: medicine

Graciousness

From ‘The Heart of Virtue’ by Donald DeMarco

There are just a handful more than a hundred neurosurgeons practicing in Canada. Dr. Harley Smyth is one of the best and most highly respected of this relatively small fraternity. But when it comes to dealing with the pituitary gland, that mysterious organ the size and shape of a lima bean, situated at the base of the brain, he is arguably the best. Smyth, however, finds such comparisons invidious. His interest is not in status. The principle by which he practices his highly intricate art is the one that Albert Schweitzer adopted: Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben (reverence for life).

Smyth understand onlyh too well how easy it is for authority to become superiority, and he strives to resist this temptation. “There is a certain disdain”, he says, “by some doctors for the laity. I have no doubt that medicine sometimes attracts people who are unconsciously looking for a place from which they can exercise power over people.”

Some doctors are better at rounds than others, but Smyth is superb. He is so tuned-in to his many Italian patients, for example, that he has picked up enough Italian during his bedside chats to carry on cheerful, if clumsy, conversations. He has an extraordinary memory for not only the names of his patients but also the names of their relatives. His abiding awareness that, more often than not, he is holding his patients’ lives in his hands leads him to pray before every surgical intervention. Taped to the inside of his locker door are the words Sir Jacob Astly wrote before the battle of Newberry:

“Lord,

I shall be verie busie this day:

I may forget Thee

But doe not Thou forget me.

Smyth’s commitment to the “reverence for life” principle includes his defense of the unborn. His practice as a neurosurgeon fully corroborates his view that the unborn child warrants respect. He cites, for example, an occasion when he operated on a twenty-three-year-old woman who was bleeding from a malformed thin-walled artery in her brain during the fifth month of her first pregnancy. The procedure took eleven hours. The twelve-member team included two anesthetists and two obstetricians who kept unbroken vigil over each movement and heartbeat of the unborn child. Four months after the operation, the baby was delivered normally; both the child and the mother were fine. “Life is a gift”, according to Smyth, “of which we may become, over a short season, loving caretakers and loyal stewards.”

Around the same time that Smyth began his witness for life, his wife was pregnant with their third child. She knew intuitively that something was wrong, and when her little girl, Anna, was born, they discovered she had Down’s syndrome. “It was ironic”, said Dr. Smyth, “that I, who had been an advocate for the unborn, had been called to the witness stand. The timing was breathtaking.” When some of his colleagues suggested that he institutionalize his daughter at age three, when she would be entitled to free care, the very idea repulsed him and prompted him to ask: “In the elimination of the obvious heartache involved in the receiving of a mentally retarded child into the family of man, what else might we eliminate?” In due time this question was answered for him in a most dramatic and personal way, for the “something else” that might have been eliminated was his very own life.

Smyth was devoted to his daughter. In fact, he sometimes introduced himself at public appearances as “Anna’s dad”. Despite his eighty-hour work week, he always managed to spend time with her. In particular, he was fond of taking her to an indoor pool for swimming lessons. One day at the pool, his then seven-year-old daughter noticed a “freckle” on his back that looked different from the others. She noticed it again the next time they went swimming, and said, “Doctor fix it!” Because of Anna’s insistence, Smyth asked a plastic surgeon at the hospital where he worked to examine the curious spot. The “freckle” proved to e a malignant melanoma, a dangerous form of skin cancer. Because it was treated at an early stage, the doctors gave Dr. Smyth a good prognosis.

Today, a dozen years later, Smyth is still practicing neurosurgery, and with no appreciable reduction in his work hours. Moreover, he has not lost his gracious willingness to be led, especially by his daughter. Now nineteen years of age, Anna continues to lead her father, as he puts it, “onto unusual paths and into unusual places”. Recently, in March of 1995, he accompanied her to a special school in Camphill Village, Ontario. There, with fifty others- half of whom were handicapped, and most of these nonverbal- they spent two weeks together in community giving witness to what Smyth describes as “magic moments of complete teamwork”. Smyth’s own role, which he accepted with both graciousness and pride, was to keep the fire going for the maple syrup.

Commentary

Being gracious can prove to be a lifesaver in more ways than one. The distinguished psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was awakened once at 3:00 A.M. by the telephone call from a complete stranger. The caller was a distraught woman who spoke incoherently for about twenty minutes about committing suicide. Frankl, though extremely groggy, listened to the woman until she concluded the conversation. Some time later, the woman met Frankl and thanked him profusely for saving her life. Frankl recalled the telephone incident ut pleaded that he had been too sleepy at the time to have told her anything that could possibly have been helpful. The woman heartily agreed, remarking that she could not make head or tail of what he was tring to say. “But”, she added, “the very fact that a great man such as you would spend twenty minutes on the phone at three o’clock in the morning with a complete stranger such as myself meant that I must be important in some way, and so I decided to go on living.”

Graciousness is the largeness of heart that allows a person, no matter how outstanding he is in a particular field, to remain in touch with the essential humanity of others. It keeps him from taking himself  and his achievements so seriously that he forgets everyone else.

Toward the end of his life, Artur Rubenstein heard much about the prowess of twelve-year-old piano prodigy Dmitris Sgouros. Though he had always been suspicious of child prodigies, he graciously invited the boy to play for him at his home in Geneva. Happy and honored to oblige, Sgouros gave a two-hour concert for his audience of one. As the final note died away, Ruenstein, considered the last of the great romantic pianists, declared the lad a better pianist than himself.

The antithesis of snobbery, graciousness flows from a disposition of benevolence and, in its clearest manifestations, bestows honor and respect on those who have no personal, social, or professional claim to such largess. The person who displays snobbery prefers what separates people from each other rather than what unites them. He ranks his fellowmen according to how important they appear to be in terms of their wealth, occupation, social standing, and the like. He does not “waste his time” on those beneath him but seeks recognition from those above. He deems not being obliged to return telephone calls a clear sign of success.

The gracious person, on the other hand, is a democrat in the truest sense of the term. He does not allow class or other distinctions to prevent him from seeing the worth in others. He does not allow his personal, professional, or social advantages to alienate him from his “inferiors”. Graciousness presupposes the ability to see grace in everyone and respond appropriately.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy expressed graciousness when he introduced himself to the French as the husband who had accompanied his wife, Jackie, to Paris. Louise Fletcher exhibited the same virtue when, after receiving an Academy Award for her role in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, she used sign language to thank her deaf parents for giving her a dream that they now could see had been realized. And General Charles de Gaulle was so gracious a man that, even when preoccupied with political matters of historic and global significance, he managed to make time for his daughter with Down’s syndrome, delighting her with his singing and dancing.

Pride often interferes with our capacity to see the evidence of grace in others. When our vision becomes limited to our own exertions and accomplishments, we have difficulty acknowledging that God is the source of all that is good. We then also fail to see the gifts he bewtows generously, albeit differently, to everyone else.

During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer”. On that day in 1863, Lincoln stated that although Americans had been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven, they had forgotten God, the source of all those blessings. “We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”

The drowsy father who walks the baby in the wee hours of the morning, knowing he has a full day of important business ahead, and the young mother who subordinates her professional pursuits to the needs of her newborn mirror to their children the graciousness of God. Graciousness is essential to motherhood and fatherhood, but it is not essential to a career. A careerist who is a snob may improve his standing in the world, but he will be marred by an inherent misanthropy. His will be merely the appearance of success, under which will lie a failure in humanity.

In the movie The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima, the villagers dismiss the three children who claim to have seen the Blessed Mother with such remarks as, “I’m sure the Mother of God has more important things to do that speak to children.” They overlook a truth we easily lose sight of ourselves- there is nothing that should be more important to a mother than speaking with her children. In a debate over the merits of feminism, Gloria Steinem asked, “Who wants to be locked up all day with the intellect of the three-year-old?” Her opponent, Midge Decter, like a true mother retorted, “Three-year-olds are some of the most enchanting people in the world”, and she added that she would not mind being locked up with one of them any day. We should not forget that Christianity came into the world because a woman was willing to make a child the center of her life.

Through graciousness, which begins with the recognition that there is something other than ourselves that is graced, we come to realize the deeper source of grace that lies within us.

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