I have practiced medicine for about thirty years. In my daily work I see surgeries that can be done without leaving scars, medicines that have the power to erase memories, and lifesaving treatments that were unknown and unimaginable a few decades ago. Medicine has become a technological marvel. But not everything that is useful in medicine is new.
In my present position, working with seriously ill and dying children, I have, quite unexpectedly, discovered the most effective medical treatment in the world. It has no insurance billing code, creates no profit for the pharmaceutical industry and, sadly, is mostly ignored in the medical school curriculum.
I am a professor, and I am a student. These days my teachers are the mothers and fathers of children who have died, children for whom the medical miracle was not enough. These parents carry the most excruciating wound that life can give. And yet they get up every day and tie their shoes and help keep the world revolving, caring for their remaining children, showing up at the office, and taking out the trash. Every day they teach me how to be a better doctor.
These parents—my teachers—taught me about this dramatically effective treatment. A young mother was deep in the suffocating pit of depression. One morning her pain was so great that she had no idea how she could possibly make it through the day. She needed so badly to be relieved of the suffering that she decided to end the pain forever, right there in her kitchen.
But then she reconsidered; she knew she couldn’t leave her own father who cared so deeply for her. Her father and the slender thread of his affection saved her life that day.
A seven-year-old cancer patient was fidgeting and writhing with pain that was so fierce it would not submit to morphine. He gently began to relax and fall asleep when he listened to the soothing sound of his grandmother’s voice and felt the touch of her smooth hand on his forehead.
A teenager in intensive care was being whipped and lashed by waves of fever, sepsis, and hypoxia, but he fought it all, refusing to be washed out to sea, until his estranged father arrived to say, “I’m sorry,” and the boy could answer, “I know, it’s okay.” Only then could he peacefully let go and drift out into the ocean.
I have seen it again and again. I have seen it too many times to ignore it. I believe the most powerful medicine on earth is love.
Dr. Ross Hays is a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine and carries certification in three specialties: pediatrics, rehabilitation medicine, and hospice and palliative medicine. He is the medical director of the pediatric palliative care service at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.