Catholic Medical Quarterly Volune 70(4) November 2020
Time for St George to re-slay the dragon
Fr James McTavish
Increased death rates and conflictive tensions among surgeons in a top London teaching hospital in 2018 were blamed on a “dark force”. What are we to make of this, seeing as us surgeons usually always champion getting the diagnosis right so we can then proceed to cut the damn thing out. A wrong diagnosis can send you barking up the wrong tree. What exactly is this “dark force”? What diagnostic category does it belong to and, for those obsessed with audit, what code would it have?
Probably we will need to veer oﬀ our typical medical paths of knowledge, steering away from anatomy, physiology, pathology even. Of course, there are other fields of knowledge and surgery is only one of many. Unfortunately, most doctors are very poorly trained in moving laterally. Instead we expect all other knowledge categories to squeeze into our own rather limited conceptions. Let us name the dark force for what it is, or is likely to be and oﬀer some treatment options too. After all, if we don’t name the “dark force” for what it is then poor old Darth Vader will end up getting all the blame.
The “dark force” is pride.
Pride in the cardiac unit of a certain hospital led egos to spiral out of control as the joke goes “What is the diﬀerence between God and a surgeon?” Answer “God does not think he is a surgeon.” Pride and subsequent envy (one of the many bad fruits of pride, along with judgments, superiority, inferiority, justification, excessive anger etc.) is what drove Cain to kill Abel. Pride has been the downfall of many. Like most poisons it has many side eﬀects.
Where we find “Dark satanic mills”, our poet William Blake would exhort us to not let our sword sleep in our hands. What is needed is the sword, not of destiny, but of humility. Humility is the only antidote to the poison of pride. So if the prescription is a hefty dose of humility, what exactly is it? Let’s consult a specialist - St Alphonsus Liguori, the patron Saint of moral theology - to gives us some excellent practical tips on how to stay humble.
To have a horror of pride.
St Alphonsus recounts that the devil has no fear of the proud. A demoniac being once brought to a Cistercian monastery, the prior took with him a young religious who had the reputation of being a man of great virtue, and said to the evil spirit: If this monk shall command you to depart, will you dare to remain? I have no fear of him, replied the enemy, because he is proud.
Don’t glory in the good we do.
Do not boast - oh dear all this is sounding seriously diﬃcult for us surgeons! But let us not be discouraged (another one of pride’s rotten fruits!) but be radical and take the axe to the root of the tree.
We must distrust ourselves.
A touch of healthy distrust is not a bad thing, remembering the Psalmist’s warning: “He so flatters himself in his mind that he knows not his guilt” (see Psalm 36:2)
To accept humiliations.
"Many," says St. Ambrose, "have the appearance of humility, but not the virtue of humility.” This statement of Ambrose is truly enlightening. Often a person can appear humble, but only God sees our heart and our intentions.
Pride is a vice that can ruin everything. Even close friendships can be ruined by pride and envy. Oﬃces or surgery departments can become hell-holes when the dragon of pride is unleashed. Where there is pride there is also unjust criticism, self-pity, violence, anger, aggression and lack of forgiveness. St. Dorotheus of Gaza (ca.505-565) wrote “The reason for all disturbance is that no one blames himself. This is the reason for every taking of oﬀense and upset. This is why, at times, it is impossible to find peace of soul. Whenever some sort of inconvenience or penalty or dishonor or trouble of any kind happens to the one who is ready to find fault with himself, he bears it with a smile, considers that he deserves it, and so is not in the least put out by it. Who could be more peaceful than such a person?”
Pride is a terrible sickness with a concomitant morbidity and mortality that is not merely spiritual. May we not get tired of sowing seeds of humility and cultivate this virtue. Sirach the wise sage exhorts “the greater you are, the more you must humble yourself ” (Sirach 3:18). And when the “dark force” rears its ugly head in our daily lives, we need courage to wield the sword of meek-ness and humility to slay the dragon once more.
St George, pray for us!
- Jack Hardy, “Hospital heart unit was consumed by 'dark force' as patients were put at risk by a dysfunctional team of surgeons, leaked report reveals.” 3 August 2018. Available at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/st-georges-hospital-london-heart-unit-patientsat-risk-surgeons-dark-force-a8476911.html
- See poem “Jerusalem” by William Blake.
- St Alphonsus Liguori, Dignity and duties of the priest (or Selva)" p. 309-321. Full text available at https://archive.org/details/alphonsusworks12liguuoft/page/n325
- St. Dorotheus, Roman Oﬃce of Readings for Monday of the 9th week in Ordinary time
Background of the author:
The author, Fr. James McTavish, is a Scottish Catholic priest with the Verbum Dei missionaries. He has been working in the Philippines for 17 years. Prior to entering religious life, he worked as a medical doctor (MB, BChir, Cambridge University1992) and later in surgery (Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh 1997). Upon entering religious life in 1999, he did further studies in Moral theology and Bioethics. Part of his current priestly ministry involves giving formations on medical ethics to healthcare workers in the Philippines, as well as spiritual accompaniment (prayer with the Word of God and the celebration of the Eucharist) to nourish their life of faith.