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A colleague of mine claims that ethicists, like myself, are "the professionally troubled." I prefer to think of us as "the professionally questioned." After all, without those perplexing and exasperating questions about "what we ought to do,"there would be no need for ethics, or for ethicists. Over the years, I have become quite content in a world where every day seems like a quiz, hours filled with quandaries and queries.
Of course, one thing about being content is that if you wait a minute the feeling will pass! This is indeed what happened to me just about a year ago. I was doing a guest appearance in a medical ethics class at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland. I had left my "lecture notes" unread as we engaged in a somewhat random conversation about those expected and unexpected dilemmas encountered within a hospital. Things were going quite well when out of the dark back corner of the room came the best and the hardest question I have ever been asked. "Do ethicists ever feel guilty? Like, when it's a really hard case and someone might die, do you, like, ever feel guilty?"
The conversation stopped cold; the silence hung in the air. "Do I ever feel guilty?" I wondered; "Me, feel guilty?" I shuffled my feet, coughed a bit trying to buy time to think, trying to take my emotional pulse. Stammering a bit, I began slowly, "Guilty? Honestly, no; I have never felt guilty. But, what I have felt is sad, profoundly sad. When it seems that hope for recovery is expiring, when not one of the possible answers brings happiness, when the weight of the decision seems too much for the patient and the family to bear, then, I feel a deep sense of sorrow."
Sometimes we are deeply affected by the questions our health and our illness force us to ask, by the life-stories we hear, by the people whose eyes meet ours. Sometimes, the questions seem to be getting the upper hand, to be hiding around every corner and in every nook and cranny of our lives, to be in our bones . . . .
A version of this article appeared an 1996 edition of the O'Connor
Health News, a publication of O'Connor Hospital, San Jose, California.
Margaret R. McLean is the director of the he Applied Ethics Center at O'Connor Hospital.
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