- The Doctor's Wife
My husband brings his work home. Had he been a butcher, it might have been a prime cut of steak; a mason, a block of limestone. The newspaper reporter brings home fingers covered in ink, and the fishmonger, the smell of the sea. But my husband is an oncologist, so he brings home the dead and dying.
This makes our king-size bed rather crowded. The children, padding into the room after midnight on footie-paja-maed feet to cuddle beside us, are unaware of who is already there between their parents: a bald thirty-three year old who will never be a mother, a grieving widow who turned her anger against her husband's doctor rather than his horrible disease, a beloved grandfather whose cancer has metastasized to every far-reaching corner of his body. My husband's patients hog the blankets, steal my pillow, shake the mattress with their sobs.
Over the sleeping body of our curly-haired daughter, my husband and I watch the television pundits discuss the war in Iraq, then a human interest story about the young men and women, not really that much older than our own babies, who carry guns, drive tanks, watch their comrades suffer and die. We stare at the screen in silence, together and apart, fixed on images of young bodies killing and being killed.
Even on returning home, some soldiers can never be the same. Violent memories linger, recurring like tumors. After so much blood, some soldiers become dry and still like stones.
"The only difference," my husband finally says, "is that those soldiers see death like a flash—quick and fierce and chaotic." With his index finger, he gently traces the baby's slightly parted lips—a perfect cupid's bow. Then he looks away. "I watch people die in slow motion."
In medical school, they called us marines. Osler marines, to be precise, after the venerable Dr. William, who, so they say, was a general of a man. We were in the trenches, on the front lines, soldiering on. Antibiotics bombed infections, diligent docs were gunners, and incoming patients were middle of the night hits to be avoided.
It was no time to be at war with metaphor. Metaphor was at war with us, and winning by a big margin.
In our white-coated uniforms, our scrub suit camouflage, we were the measly privates of the operation being taught the ways of battle. We were given rounds of bullets with names like distance, objectivity, and self-preservation. Any other kind of medical practice was strictly on a don't ask, don't tell basis.
So we huddled together for warmth in the fox holes of training. In the field, almost a dozen couples were born—all fair in love and war—among them, my husband and I.
"Medicine makes a jealous mistress," our teachers told us laughingly, even as our dean earnestly recommended that I reconsider obstetrics for pediatrics, a field more suited to family life and what is, after all, a military marriage.
What is it to witness continuous suffering? What is it to continuously witness suffering? Emmanuel Levinas posited that the ethical work of medicine lies in this act of witnessing—of seeing the Other's face, answering the call of another's suffering.1 But what philosopher can account for the weight of suffering—not only upon those who suffer, but upon those who stand beside suffering? What is the cost of ethical practice? What is the responsibility of those who witness the experience of witnesses?
Historically, medicine recognized the need for physicians to be witnessed even as they were witnessing their patients. In part, this need was satisfied by the Hegelian sense of recognition, whereby the gift of recognition was returned: patients could engage with and recognize the humanity of their doctor, who in turn engaged with and recognized theirs.2 This sort of medicine provided other avenues for recognition as well, in local communities in which physicians lived, practiced, and enjoyed special status, and in families in which (male) physicians' (female) partners provided unconditional love and support.
The increasing impersonalization of medicine takes a toll...