“Medicine and doctors, be humble!”
Medicine is meaningless
I am a doctor who assumed the power of medicine
My job is to diagnose and treat patients
I was taught that doctors were virtuous people
My husband was also a doctor
But then one day he was diagnosed with a brain tumor
He turned into a patient overnight
Medicine cut him into pieces like a sharp knife
And medicine couldn’t save my husband
Why do people call medicine superior when it only ends in defeat?
Why do doctors always assume that they are right?
I studied and practiced medicine with him by my side
But I can no longer believe in it after he died
When I wonder how many people I have hurt using this knife
I cannot look my patients in their eyes any longer
Medicine and doctors, be humble!
“Mom! There’s something wrong with Daddy! He collapsed! You need to come home right now!” My daughter was screaming on the other end of the phone. “Stay there, I’m driving home right now. I’ll be there in ten minutes.” The ten minutes felt like an hour. I hurriedly entered the living room and saw my husband lying limply on the sofa.
“Are you okay?”
His blank stare. His confusion. I had seen cases like that countless times before while working as a clinician. “He just had a convulsive seizure,” I thought. “This is not good.”
That day my husband was diagnosed with malignant glioblastoma, a type of brain tumor with the poorest prognosis. The test results said that without treatment, he only had 11 months to live. He immediately underwent a succession of treatments, including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy. After the treatment, he was able to return to work as a cardiologist, albeit for a short time. Thanks to modern technology, we were able to create unforgettable memories and spend a very fulfilling time together as a family. Medicine certainly did save his life numerous times.
However, there is another side to this story.
I can still vividly recall the conversation I had with my husband after his doctor showed us the results of the MRI test.
“There seems to be another tumor growing in the brain,” the doctor said.
My husband and I noticed the smug expression on his face.
“Why was he talking as if finding a new tumor in my brain was some sort of an achievement?” he said angrily on our way back.
Once my husband was a doctor, saving lives with the power of medicine.
Now he was a patient number X, just another sample that doctors look for abnormalities in. Medicine gave him the role of a weak, powerless patient, and he had to accept it if he wanted to survive. He was forced to endure the shame that the role brought with it. Many people pitied my husband for being a poor patient who was destined to die, leaving behind his wife and young children. I could see the anger and frustration he felt every time he received a pitying look from his doctors.
I could see the disease slowly taking over his body and mind. Each day, his paralysis was getting worse, his cognitive impairment becoming more severe. I sometimes could not go see him in the hospital because it hurt so much to see him like that.
“We tried every treatment available that we could think of. There is nothing else that we can do,” his doctor eventually told him. He passed away after a long, 5-year battle against his illness.
Medicine imposes the role and the narrative of a patient onto the sick person. Doctors diagnose patients and force them to fight their diseases. And when they run out of treatments, doctors urge patients to give up the fight and accept their illness as their fate. This seems to be a common scenario in the field of medicine.
Why did he have to suffer? Why him? What is the point of all this suffering? Medicine did not answer these questions.
Medicine did let him live for more than 11 months, but in the end, it could not save him.
To be skeptical of medicine is to question the meaning of medical care that my husband and I had practiced for many years. Have I overestimated the power of medicine? Was I wrong in believing that a proper diagnosis and cutting-edge technology are all it takes to solve the patient’s problems? Have I not looked down upon my patients from this comfortable position as a doctor? I feel ashamed when I think of how proud I used to be under the delusion that medicine was always right. Should doctors be more humble when they wield the power of medicine? These questions keep circling in my head.
To practice medicine, one must believe in their decisions. Doctors cannot perform invasive tests and treatments unless they firmly believe that what they are doing is correct based on scientific evidence. They must assume the role of a confident and reliable superhero when they wear the white coat. However, beneath the white armor, they are just human beings.
It has been more than five years since my husband passed away. Whenever I remember him, his bony face, dry skin, and arms that no longer moved, I cannot help but question the assumptions and norms of medicine.
Mikako Obika, M.D., Ph.D., Okayama University, Japan