Looking back over my 29 years as a medic, I think my year at the cancer hospital was the hardest. Every fourth day and weekend without fail, I would cover the intensive care unit for 24 hours as the resident middle-grade doctor. In all my time there, not one patient survived, though not for lack of trying. Not one.
The thing they all had in common was that their bone marrow had been suppressed by cancer-killing chemotherapy and they had then succumbed to overwhelming infection. Admission to intensive care, full resuscitation with intubation, ventilation, IV fluids and powerful cardiac stimulants were all to no avail. They died because without functioning bone marrow, they could not mount an immune response and no amount of antibiotics could stop their bodies from being overrun by microbes.
Of course, I was only meeting the sickest of the very sick. Most chemotherapy patients do not suffer such severe complications. Their bone marrow recovers and their cancer is knocked back or even cured.
I had become a doctor to cure sometimes, relieve often and comfort always, but this continual experience of failure in all of these gradually began to get me down.
I started to dread going to work at the cancer hospital, and feared the bleep going off. Though I had lapsed from the practice of the Faith after going to university, I started to pray, asking that my patients might recover, or selfishly that I might be spared from being on duty when they needed admission. My prayers weren’t answered. The deaths carried on relentlessly. A great sense of meaninglessness and hopelessness filled my heart.
I wasn’t helped by being single, friendless, living alone and drowning my sorrows every free evening in the pub beside the hospital. I had no lack of casual drinking buddies – hospital staff mainly – to laugh and joke through the rush-hour with, before going home to my TV dinner and bed. My heart was beating, but I wasn’t alive.
My spiritual state was that of a jolly pagan, a Bacchus in a dirty white coat and fake halo. Despite a profound religious experience two years before, my moral life was still painted in various shades of black, and my head was full of confusing syncretist, New Age nonsense.
One day I was writing up the notes of a young patient who had just died, and I paused as the black dog of depression came up to lick my chops. I was staring into space and my face must have been alarming, as one of the relatives came over and asked with concern: “Are you all right, dearie?” My eyes teared up at her kindness, and I apologised: “I’m sorry, I am struggling to see any good in this place. There is just too much death here.”
Embarrassed by my own frankness and morbidness, I shuffled off to the on-call room, for more rudimentary talking at God and unguided introspection, neither of which helped me at all. The nurses thought I was a funny old bean.
Something also disturbed me about the hospital’s ethos. There was a heavy emphasis on research into the effects of treatment A versus treatment B. This was measured by total days of survival, including patients’ last dying days on the intensive care ward. My role seemed to me to be as the provider of those final desperate hours of life at any cost, extended only by extreme and futile medical interventions. I was merely an accessory to some statistician’s detached delving. This felt wrong to me.
I had a weird dream one night. Balaclava-clad, like some animal-rights activist, I raced through the hospital tearing up treatment charts, telling everyone they were free at last. Very bizarre it seemed.
One evening I stayed later in the bar, drinking alone after my pals had left. There was nothing to rush home for. I was mildly squiffy. Quite suddenly I was overcome by a sense of intense paranoia, literally spooked, with no idea from where it came. In a trice, the cosy bar where I had been supping my pint became a lair of horrors. It was as if I was seeing the place for the first time, as it really was: a seedy den filled with deadbeat boozers and losers, and there was I, fully a member of the club. The regular drinkers were unknown to me, but I began to suspect evil intent in their every sidewise glance at me. I felt so alone. I came over cold and sweaty and started looking for a route to escape.
A terrifying sense of impending doom filled my mind. I was certain that I was about to meet my end by either violence or sudden illness. My thoughts cascaded wildly considering the possibilities, and then – with great clarity and certainty – I knew that I had to confess my sins to a priest without delay, or I would be damned eternally. As a young man at play in the big city, I was no stranger to sin, you see, but until that moment, I had never been conscious of the effects of its deadly payload upon my soul.
I left the bar as if pursued by a horde of demons, and made it to the hospital foyer. where there was a phone box. It was about 9 pm and still light. I belonged to no parish so who was I going to call? The Yellow Pages listed the churches in the city and one name jumped out at me. It was a Jesuit church. I remembered hearing about their missionary charism as a Catholic schoolboy. Surely they might help me.
I dialled quickly and in a panic explained my situation to the urbane voice at the other end. I was conscious that I must have sounded like a complete nutter. The voice told me calmly to come right over.
I jumped in a taxi and was there in no time. I found the front door off the main street and rang the bell. The quietness and shadows of the alleyway did not help my anxiety. (I was reminded of that streetlight scene from The Exorcist.)
The door opened and the brightness from within instantly cast away the chill gloam that had clung to me as I waited. I was let in by one of the brothers, the one who had answered the phone. I must have been a rum sight, with staring eyes, pale face and beery breath.
As I stood in the welcoming hallway, the front door opened again and a short elderly priest with round glasses, beret and long black coat came in and joined us. “Good evening, brother!” they said joyously to one another, as brothers might.
I got shown into a visitors’ room off the hall. After a few minutes a bleary-eyed, middle-aged priest came in, dressed in a clerical suit that had seen some life. I had obviously got the poor man out of bed. He gruffly made it clear that this was all very irregular, but I pleaded so unashamedly for him to hear my Confession, and given how visibly distressed I was, he mercifully assented. (I wonder if he is reading this now.)
I was well out of practice, but he coaxed me along as I confessed for the first time in more than 10 years, face to face, and with tears. I remembered my Act of Contrition from childhood, and with the final words of the Absolution, with my eyes closed, my dread left me, completely. I have never been so grateful as at that moment. I apologised for my crazed intrusion, and left that house in peace.
A considerably lighter heart beheld the dirty old city as I splashed through the puddles to catch the bus home. Nothing about the externals around me had changed, but I had changed; I had been reconciled. I realised that only my own sins could really harm me. If I could sever my links to them, I could lose my fear of death, forever and always. I was finally back in the fold, and now I would have to endeavour to stay there. That endeavour continues to this very day, in that faltering way familiar to all repenting sinners. My paranoia had led me to metanoia – a complete change of heart and life.
I had yet to find a parish to be my spiritual home, and re-establish the habit of regular Mass-going. It would take several years before I felt part of a parish community again as I had when growing up. Getting married and raising children were the catalysts for that.
I returned to the hospital routine. Those poor patients continued to die, but now I was praying for their souls, that they might receive the gift which I had received, that Perpetual Light might shine upon them.
Modern medical care can only alter the time, place and mode of bodily death, not its inevitable eventuality. Sadly, I think many patients and relatives fail to see this limitation, or even consider their spiritual lives at all. Nobody should “go gentle into that good night” without some preparation for the way, and a “Kindly Light” to lead them.
Cancer patients are very conscious that they have been invaded by a hostile force intent on their annihilation. Catholics see mortal sins in this same light. They are a lethal neoplasm, a death sentence for the soul, separating it forever from God who is the soul’s only true rest and home. The Gospel is all about the death of this death sentence, achieved by Christ’s sacrifice once and for all upon the Cross.
The worst cancer imaginable can in theory be cured by a totally ablating dose of radiation delivered to the whole body. This kills not only all the cancer cells wherever they have spread to, but also the vital bone marrow, the source of immunity. Without a marrow transplant, the patient will quickly die from even a mild infection such as the common cold. The donated marrow must be fully compatible, or there is a risk that it might start attacking the patient’s own tissues.
The transplant that Jesus gives us in the Eucharist is perfectly compatible and revivifying for the human soul, for He is the universal donor. It will only safely “take” in a soul that has been purged of serious sin by the ablative, self-emptying therapies of first Baptism and later Reconciliation, which irradiate the soul with sanctifying grace.
Pain, illness, sorrow and death are often not taken away from us by Jesus. Instead, He shows us how to put them to holy use, by joining our sufferings to His. While medicine is a great good, it is no substitute for an ever-closer bonding with Jesus, imitating Him in every little way, even unto the ultimate sacrifice. The ordinary, everyday sufferings we all have will suffice for this, at least at first.
The arrows of our desire for union with God, which we launch up into the cloud of unknowing (which hides God from us), are returned to us in God’s good time as darts aimed at our hearts, and tipped with the salve of transforming caritas. The uncanny thing is that our upward arrows are often being launched without our conscious awareness, by our souls working subconsciously, bleating for help.
The Good Shepherd’s ears are most attuned to those sheep furthest from Him. If it sometimes seems as if our prayers are not being answered, it might be because our Lord is busy dealing with those more imperilled. Patience is always vital for us, His patients.
It is only when we are driven by our choices and circumstances to our lowest ebb and rendered helpless that God’s grace can most intervene. When we are weak, He is most strong. God is gracious and polite and would never force Himself upon us – even the divine physician requires our consent. But He never fails to save us from our distress, if only we let Him.
After more than 20 years’ hindsight, I can now see how God rescued my sickly slumbering soul from a fate literally worse than death. Without the dark epiphany I experienced in that saloon, and what it led me to do, who knows where I would be now.
Dr John Morrissey is an NHS consultant specialising in care of the critically ill. He is writing under a pseudonym