by Gary M. Votour, MHCA
In the middle of February, 2006, I had been living in the neurosurgical ICU for the last few weeks hoping for my wife, Lyn, to wake up from a coma following a massive stroke. The stroke was a result of a high risk surgery to remove a cancerous vertebrae from her neck. Her surgeon had told us that the stroke had occurred because Lyn had a congenital defect in her heart that had allowed a clot to reach her brain during the surgery. There was no evidence that this was the cause, and despite many tests in the coming weeks, there never was.
An expert neurosurgeon from another hospital had been flown in to consult on Lyn’s case. He had agreed with Lyn’s surgeon that the theory about her heart was valid and suggested some follow-up tests. While he was there he presented several of his cases to the surgical team of the hospital and, strangely, I had been invited to attend the presentation. I sat through a three hour presentation and watched with horror as he showed slides of his patients surgeries. I was the only person in the room not wearing a white coat. At the end he presented what he said was his most successful case.
He told us he couldn’t show pictures of the patient because the patient had not given consent, but that he had decided he could show what had been removed during the surgery. On screen was a female body, from the lower abdomen down, lying on a stainless steel table. The patient had a spinal cancer that was very advanced, and he had removed her hips and legs in order to save her life. He went on to tell the room how well she had done following the surgery, even recovering to the point where she was able to return to work as a secretary, although she had to sit in a bucket instead of a chair.
Then he explained that despite all he had done for her, she had let him down because years later she died from lung cancer. He said it was because she had so little respect for herself that she did not quit smoking. While many of the older doctors laughed along with him at that comment, most of the younger residents did not. I felt like I was in a room surrounded by humans who had fallen from God’s grace.
At the end of the presentation, I was waiting for the elevator when Lyn’s surgeon and the expert approached me. He said how much he respected me for staying by Lyn’s side, and reassured me that her surgeon had not caused the stroke. Then he asked me if I wanted to go to lunch with them. I turned away, and with a mouth tasting of bile, I said words I will forever remember… “No thank you. There would never be a restaurant large enough go hold both of your egos and still have room for me to sit in.” Foregoing the elevator, I walked down the nearby stairs, back to Lyn’s side.
Years later, I read what Max Lucado has written about air-rogance. He used the term to compare arrogance to climbing a mountain and breathing thin air.
“You can climb to high for your own good. It’s possible to ascend too far, stand to tall, and elevate too much. Linger too long at high altitudes, and two of your senses suffer. Your hearing dulls. It’s hard to hear when you are higher than they. Voices grow distant. Sentences seem muffled. And when you are up there, your eyesight dims. It’s hard to focus on people when you are so far above them. They appear so small. Little figures with no faces. You can hardly distinguish one from another. They all look alike. You don’t hear them. You don’t see them. You are above them.”
I realized that on that day I had briefly visited that mountain. What I saw there scared me so much that and I quickly climbed back down to reality. Many of the doctors in that room had been there so long they actually saw nothing wrong about their laughter regarding that patients death. They saw nothing disrespectful about that image of a discarded life, burned now into my memory. Worse than all of that, they acknowledged they felt the visiting surgeon had the right to be angry and disappointed that his patient had shown HIM such disrespect. Only the newer ones, hoping to find acceptance amongst their seniors but not fully acclimated to the thin air, remained silent.
I believes God hates human air-rogance. It must make him very sad when people, especially doctors that he has gifted with great life-saving skill, decide to live on that mountain. I believe God hates to see his children fall from His grace. The Bible has much to say about pride and arrogance, many of which we have all heard before: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom…. Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance, for the Lord is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed… Pride only breeds quarrels, but wisdom is found in those who take advice… The eyes of the arrogant man will be humbled and the pride of men brought low… Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”
The most relevant quote is in Obadiah 1:3 “The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rocks and make your home on the heights, you who say to yourself, ‘Who can bring me down to the ground?’ ” Isn’t it amazing that words written so long ago continue to have such relevant meaning? “The pride of your heart” is the arrogance that comes from unbalanced egotism. I say “unbalanced” because egotism is not necessarily a terrible thing- it is much like self-confidence, and it can come from a sense of self-pride that is well deserved amongst those who have great skills bestowed upon them. Yet egotism must be balanced by great compassion and humility, for to be uncaring of those who have lifted you up to that mountain is to risk a great fall from God’s grace.
The cure to medical air-rogance is humility. C.S. Lewis once wrote “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.” It means you think of others more than yourself… and is that not why most of you chose a career in medicine in the first place? “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3-4)
To those on that mountain, please… Come back down.
The thin air of air-rogance will not sustain you.
You can be forgiven you for being there, but only if you come back down.
When you find yourself breathing that thin air, look for the stairs.