by Amanda Ruth, Pediatrician
“We take care of bodies.”
I was taught this phrase in medical school as a reminder to fledgling physicians of the limitations of our specialty. It struck me afresh this summer as I prepared to do one of the most challenging aspects of my job – telling a mother that her baby was dying.
I am a pediatric critical care doctor in a quaternary children’s hospital. This means access to rare, specialized procedures and therapies some places could only dream of. Despite all our expertise and months of treatment, we did not cure this baby boy. His body was failing, and it was time to have the discussion with his parents about the end of his life.
As I headed to his room, my phone’s familiar alert dinged. The text from my husband read, “We don’t have enough uniforms.” I paused, immediately irritated. I was preparing to do something monumental and this interruption felt insultingly mundane. Guilt followed hard on the heels of annoyance. My youngest was starting kindergarten the week after, and with me working ICU service, I had not been paying close attention to my own children. Shame joined the party; I also knew that my patient’s mom would give anything to be worrying about kindergarten uniform shopping rather than having this talk with me.
The conversation with my patient’s parents went as well as it could have. They loved him fiercely, but they knew we were out of options and did not want him to suffer. Amidst her tears, I offered to move the baby to an adult bed so mom could cuddle him. Her face lit up into the first genuine smile I had seen. Given how sick and unstable he was, she had been unable to hold her child for months.
As we got mother and baby settled into the bed, I watched her face transform. Her expression and posture were familiar; it was an echo of the way I feel when I hold my children and experience the small miracle of their cheeks, the alchemy of their smell, the warmth of their limbs. Tish Harrison Warren writes, “In the Scripture, we find that the body is not incidental to our faith, but integral to our worship.” So often, I get lost in contemplating lofty matters of the soul and mind that I forget the earthiness of our bodies is equally profound. We serve an embodied Christ, a Savior intimately familiar with the joy and heartbreak that come with owning a physical form. Mary went through labor and childbirth to usher him into our world, a process as visceral as it gets. We sing often of baby Jesus in a manger, but I sometimes wonder what kind of postpartum care a teenage girl managed in a barn.
“We take care of bodies.” When physicians are told these words, it is to acknowledge that our patients face a world of mental and emotional challenges after we presumably fix their physical ailments. But increasingly, I am recognizing what a deep privilege it is to be able to care for bodies. As Christians, we are called to use our bodies as instruments of worship – to glorify God, to enjoy the gifts of this world, even as we contend with our bodies’ ultimate limitations. My job allows me to heal where I could, but when I come up against medicine’s limits, I could continue to honor these sacred vessels of worship. My patient’s organ systems may be failing, but the touch of his skin to his mother’s was an immeasurable comfort. It is a sobering reminder of the power of bodies, and my subsequent obligation to always treat my patients’ with dignity and compassion.
I am thankful that I serve a limitless God. Where medical expertise ends, there is deep succor in knowing that my God is endless, and that my patient is now in a body where he is whole and healthy. I can do my work because Christ promised us redemption in resurrected bodies, and more immediately, His presence with us through our travails here.
In the midst of the busyness of life, I am striving to continue being faithful in honoring the body, in acts both ordinary and profound. In motherhood, I am called to foster the spiritual formation of my children and guide them into Christ’s calling. But I am also called to care for their physical needs, to show them my love in the humdrum routine of finding missing socks, cooking their favorite noodles, or chasing them in a game of tag. My patient’s mom kept vigil at his bedside for months, loving him through her presence. I pray that if I were ever called to love my children that way, I could do it as grandly as she did. But for now, I listen as God calls me to remain steadfast in the minor things – including uniform shopping.