Medicine, Faith and some books

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 Numberless are the world’s wonders, but none – none more wonderous than the body of man. Sophocles

I spent a large part of the day today grading final exams for the Human Anatomy class I’ve been teaching this year at our co-op. Teaching the class was a great experience for me. Often, young Christians are warned that somehow “science” is going to steal away their faith. I have found more of a fear of science in the Christian world than a fear or distrust of Christianity or faith in the scientific world. For me personally, I found my faith strengthened during my years in medical school. Especially in the first two years as we delved into the complexity and beauty of the human body, I remember feeling like everything we were learning gave us a glimpse into the mind of God. It’s been a long time though since I first took Anatomy or Physiology.

Being a pediatrician is great fun, but it’s different. I look inside a lot of ears and diagnose a lot of ear infections but I rarely ruminate over the beauty of the three delicate little bones inside that allow us to hear. Teaching this class was an opportunity to rediscover how amazing the body really is. It was also fun for me to teach at the high-school level, a completely new experience for me. Quite challenging, and also rewarding.

As I graded the papers I remembered that I had meant to talk about these books here awhile ago but hadn’t done so. These two companion books by Paul Brand and Phillip Yancey were incredibly influential in my life when I was in high school. I already knew I wanted to be a doctor, but these books inspired and encouraged me like no others.

Dr. Paul Brand was an orthopedic surgeon, a missionary in India most of his life and a pioneer in the field of leprosy treatment. Philip Yancey is a well-known name now but these books were originally published in 1980 and I believe were two of his first books.

The books are part devotion, part science lesson and part biography. Brand uses his knowledge of the human body to reflect on the nature of God and the church. Interwoven throughout both books are stories from Brand’s life and work in India and at a leper colony in Louisiana. I particularly like Brand’s thoughts on what the body has to teach about living in community and how the church should treat its members. I did find on this most recent reading that parts of the books read a bit dated, both medically and there are a few sections that read as non-politically correct today. However, overall these are fabulous books that I highly recommend to anyone, especially anyone with an interest in medicine.

If you read them and like them, I also would recommend a third book by Brand and Yancey, The Problem of Pain. Brand has a particularly unique view on pain after spending most of his life fighting the effects of a disease that has as its primary issue an inability to feel pain (leprosy). I once led a very interesting book group discussion where we read Brand’s book and also read some of Peter Singer’s essays on pain. Singer has pretty much the opposite worldview and view on pain as Brand so it made for a lively discussion.

Other books for an aspiring pre-med student:
The Making of a Woman Surgeon by Elizabeth Morgan
Related to Brand’s books only because it’s about medicine and more importantly it was the other book that greatly inspired me in my teenage years. A very gritty-tale of a woman going through medical school and residency at a time when there were few women. I went through a period of wanting to be a plastic surgeon, largely because of this book. Probably most interesting to women in medicine to see what it used to be like.

A Not Entirely Benign Procedure by Perri Klass
Harvard medical school as a older student and mother.  Klass has also been one of the driving forces behind Reach Out and Read, a program that uses pediatricians to promote literacy.

 Letters to a Young Doctor by Richard Selzer
A classic.  

The Medical Detectives by Berton Roueche
A collection of New Yorker articles, some dating back to the 1940’s, on epidemiology and public health. Absolutely fascinating. 

Complications and Better by Atul Gawande
Gawande began writing for the New Yorker as a surgery resident. He manages to be insightful and challenging and also tell a good story. 

How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman
Also a New Yorker staff writer, Groopman looks at the way doctors make decisions and diagnoses. I found this one uncomfortably right on the money. It challenged me to be better at what I do and it would be good if it was required reading in medical school (along with Gawande’s books.)

The Language of God by Francis Collins
Collins is a devout Christian, a geneticist, leader of the Human Genome Project and the current director of the NIH. No book comes closer to matching my own personal thoughts about faith and science. It’s not an easy read and can be fairly technical, especially in the second half. An excellent read for anyone questioning whether or not it’s possible to be a scientist and a Christian.

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