[Editor's Note: this is an entry in an occasional series; parts I-IV can be found here.]
If one needs a bit of cheering up these days, say after inadvertantly watching one of those cable talk shows, here’s a suggestion: read about the medical advances made since the end of World War II. They are numerous and impressive. Despite the well-documented inequalities in disseminating proper care to the world’s unhealthy one forgets that just a few decades ago there were no effective treatments for a multitude of diseases.
Only a nihilist would refuse to acknowledge that we are living longer and healthier lives with the help of modern medical drugs and treatments. Of course the nihilist has a secret weapon in his argument: the death rate is 100% on this planet and will always be 100% until the last upstanding citizen of Earth croaks, at which time it will once again revert to zero (cf. Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event). Why, therefore, do we spend so much time, effort and money on improving our health just so we can die in the thrall of desuetude? [How about: because it beats the alternative? -Ed.]
This assumes that all of us are going to live to be hoary old gnomes, which is untrue. Taking good care of one’s body does not guarantee a long life – just ask any non-smoking patient with lung cancer. As often as rain falls from the skies do patients reach that point in their illness where their doctor says “There is nothing more I can do for you.”
If you ever hear that phrase, remember this: it is a lie. Physicians who tell their patients this may actually mean “I’m getting depressed watching you die and want to avoid you,” or they may think of illness as a contest of skill where only victory has any value, and defeat must be acknowledged by immediate sacrifice of the vanquished. In either case what they are really saying is that they are losing interest in caring for you. This attitude may be a sign of insensitivity or simply a human reaction to an impending sadness, but it is still wrong and can be corrected easily and gently as follows:
If you ever hear your doctor state that there is nothing more that can be done, turn to him or her and say “Then now is the time I need you the most.”