Michael Attas: Death and resurrection, thanks to technology

Waco Tribune-Herald (TX) - Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Author: MICHAEL ATTAS Guest columnist


The electrons that began their cosmic journey at the dawn of time with the Big Bang billions of years ago screamed through the catheter into her heart to make it stop. Quite literally, we were trying to “kill her” in order to test the plan of action to place a defibrillator in her heart. In order to save her — to make her live — she had to die first.

The defibrillator charged in a few seconds, stored the energy in a capacitor, then delivered a small shock to her heart.

It worked. It was a small daily miracle of modern technology that never fails to make my breath pause, my heart race and my spirit give thanks. From death, life emerged stronger than ever.

She was a wonderful college senior who fainted in the shower one day shortly before graduation. By all outward appearances, it was a simple faint like thousands and thousands of people do daily when stressed.

Yet when she wore a portable monitor, we found unexpected life-threatening rhythm problems.

Like the two young athletes who recently died during competition, she was at risk for SCD — sudden cardiac death syndrome. In the past, this was a death sentence. The drugs do not work and there has been no way to project who is at risk to actually die and who may simply faint, then come back to consciousness.

With the marvel of engineering and research, a whole new field of devices has emerged that literally save lives and allow young and old alike to live far beyond what we had dreamed.

As I have reflected upon that day almost a decade ago, there are two thoughts that bear comment. The first realization is that in a very literal way, we all consist of “recycled matter” of the universe. All molecules, from electrons to atoms to carbon to every known particle, began their birth at the instant of the Big Bang.

All of our bodies have, in a strange sort of way, emerged from this primordial chaos to generate the wonder of the human condition.

People of faith acknowledge that we are imprinted with “Imageo Dei,” the image of God, and we call this our soul. We are matter that is recycled and rearranged and then transformed by something very spiritual and very profound into this miracle of humanity.

Technology, like the one that saved this young woman’s life, simply takes advantage of predictable properties of physics and biology to help us help ourselves.

So much of our biomedical research is simply using the properties of the universe which was “wonderfully and fearfully made” to harness energy on behalf of humans. The best research always draws upon deep insights into the human condition and follows that to a journey to healing where technology is used wisely and compassionately.

The second image that came of that experience is that in a very real way, much of medicine is about dying and resurrection. It is about being “born again.” It is about life emerging from the darkness of a tomb.

It is about, as the Deuteronomic writer tells us, choosing life over death. Many of our technologies and pharmacology draw upon this reality.

We take a scalpel to cut away good tissue before we remove the cancer. We give chemotherapy to kill the bone marrow, hoping that when it gives birth again it does so to healthy cells instead of cancer cells. We use the power of electricity to make a heart stop, then the same power to make it beat again. Over and over again, we are called to die in the world of medicine, only to be reborn again.

Many spiritual traditions call for dying to oneself in order to experience life again — an appropriate image in this time of Lent. I had always viewed medicine as a place where one’s theology meets the road.

After this case, I knew it to be true. It always may not end in heroics or survival as we tend to define it, but it does always open the door to a rebirth of our lives in some capacity that outlives our biological existence.

Dr. Michael Attas is a local physician, a medical humanities professor and an Episcopal priest. Send e-mail to Michael_Attas@baylor.edu.

Section: accesswaco
Record Number: 14656571
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Michael Attas: Death and resurrection, thanks to technology

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