Dr. Jay Lombard, a board certified neurologist, is a seeker in search of spiritual truth and understanding. Don’t let the title of his new book The Mind of God scare you away. Dr. Jay has no patience for dogma or labels. What he has instead is a passion to wonder, and in his book, he explores the brain in search of the seat of the human soul.
Think of the premise of this book like this: a neuroscientist helps us understand the brain better. By understanding the brain better, we can understand the mind or the essence of who we are. As such, we have the potential to see life in new and astonishing ways. In the following excerpt, we learn that the mind is a passageway through which we can discover that we are much more than mere intellect and emotions. The more we learn about the living brain, the more secrets are revealed, mysteries that suggest that the world is vaster and more thrilling than we’ve ever conceived.
Imagine, again, Long Island Jewish Hospital. I’m an intern. It’s 1989. I was assigned to care for a woman with advanced metastasized ovarian cancer. Eva was bedridden, jaundiced, and suffering from ascites, an accumulation of fluid that produces abdominal swelling. At this late stage, there was really very little we could do for her other than treat associated infections, try to make her as comfortable as possible, and reduce her pain. It was really only a matter of time.
Every day, first thing in the morning, I went to her room and spoke with her, checking her vitals, doing her blood work, holding her hand, always trying to encourage her and give her hope. I wrote brief progress notes about her status. We talked about the weather, the nurses, the news. She always smiled whenever I came in, and she shared a corny joke or two with me from a rich storehouse of humor. I asked her about her family, the various faces that beamed from photo frames on the windowsill, and she talked freely about the people in her life who meant the most to her. If a wave of pain swept over her, I could always dam it by asking about her grandkids. One played hockey. Another was a budding baker. A smile would come over Eva’s face as she lovingly described each one.
For twenty-five days I did this—and for those twenty-five days my patient lived. But two things began to gnaw at me. First, this type of medical work typically is not considered high priority for a first-year resident. We doctors are all a bit arrogant at this early place in our careers (I know I was), and I got to thinking that all this talking work could be better performed by a social worker. Surely treating the “real” patients who could be served medically was a better use of my time. Second, I felt that unspoken and horrible pressure that every intern feels to get a patient off his rotation list. When you have fifteen to twenty patients in your care, the more patients you have, the more difficult your workload is. It’s simple math. You are under pressure to lighten your load by discharging your patients as soon as possible or by transferring them to a different service in the hospital. It’s not a good goal, I know. But it’s a pressure we all felt.
On the twenty-fifth day, I told my chief resident there was unfortunately nothing else we could do for Eva. It was the stark truth. The next stop for Eva was either being transferred to hospice care or going home to die. The chief resident called in Eva’s husband and discussed options with him. I remember watching the husband from behind a privacy curtain and hearing his reaction. He was very upset. No one wants to receive news such as that. I went home that evening then came back the next morning. The twenty-sixth day.
And overnight Eva had died.
Technically, I had done nothing wrong. I knew that. But the timing of the decision to discontinue care and Eva’s passing felt too coincidental to me. I felt guilty. Every day for those twenty-five days when I had visited her, I had given her hope. Then, with my decision to transfer her out of my care, her hope had vanished. When we had told her husband there was nothing more we could do for her, I had inadvertently pulled the plug on my patient. Eva wouldn’t have lived much longer either way. But that hope could have bought her a few more days at least. Perhaps even a few weeks.
Hope: invisible, intangible, sometimes impractical.
It struck me then, for the first time in my medical career, how important the power of faith is to sustaining life—the very potent but invisible forces we cannot measure or quantify, yet which are essential to the very core of our being.
As a young doctor, I was on my way to making my living from immersing myself in a world of facts—that which could be seen under a microscope, viewed on a chart or a test, or prescribed and delivered in a bottle. Yet when it came to Eva, I had greatly undervalued and minimized the nonclinical side of medical care. My visits to her, my asking about her children and grandchildren, my sharing in small jokes with her—these “housekeeping” matters carried much more importance than I’d thought. In Eva’s case, the tool of “hope”—the expectation that there would be a tomorrow and a next day became an influencer on how she lived and how she died.
Decades have passed, and what I learned from Eva’s case continues to affect me. I’ve treated thousands of patients over the course of my career, and I continue to be immersed in a world of facts, yet it’s the things that can’t be measured that continue to hold great fascination for me. Too often we doctors believe that if we can’t measure something then it’s not real or doesn’t exist. But back at Eva’s passing, I’d encountered something buoyant. Something real and powerful.
And it could not be measured.
Excerpted from The Mind of God. Copyright 2017 by Dr. Jay Lombard. Published in the United States by Harmony Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.