“Nothing Human Is Foreign to Me”: On the Nobility of Science and the Humanistic Instinct

“Nothing human is foreign to me”

(Terence, the Roman playwright; ~170 BCE)


Thin tubes across his body. A heartbeat monitor. Nurses moving frenetically. “Stand aside,” one orders. Pale-green curtain determinately shut. I hear the chaotic beating of medical machines, as I stand out-of-place on the other side. Why am I here? What can I do to help?

Two days pass. I get a page from the nurse’s station back up on the cardiac intensive-care unit. I return to the room with the tangled tubes and wailing devices. This time, it is quieter. The intubated man they were trying to save before is alive and awake: 

“I’m Otis,” he offers. 

“I’m Charleen.” 

“Would you like to know my story?” asks Otis. 

“Yes, I would. Very much,” I reply. “May I sit?”

Otis gestures to the chair next to his bed. I sit, but then he directs my attention to the window behind me. He says the Hudson reminds him of water lilies. 

 “I was born in Europe, but we left to escape the Holocaust. We moved to Chile, where I grew up. As a teenager, I became involved in causes, ones I thought were noble. Later, I became disillusioned. Twice that happened. I left causes behind and moved to Baltimore. Became a psychiatrist.”

A woman walking softly with quiet deliberation approaches. 

“This is my wife, Rebecca,” Otis offers as he smiles to her. 

They share a calm gaze that betrays a deep affection. 

“Nice to meet you. I’m Charleen, the chaplain on this floor. I’ll leave you two alone. Thank you for talking with me, Otis.” 

As I start to walk, Rebecca touches my arm. “Please do come back tomorrow.” 

“OK, I will,” I say. “See you tomorrow, Otis.” 

I wander long corridors of doctors and wheelchairs and find a stairwell. Twenty minutes pass. Seated alone and surrounded by cold concrete, tears come hard — Otis’ life’s story rattling my core; his disillusionment and triumph ringing so true. He must have thought he was dying. How could I help him? How could I help a man with a heart problem? 

Slowly, the tears dry and the gratitude comes. I gather myself and return to the bustling corridors with their quick-moving staff and worried patients. I continue rounds — I am also the chaplain for the oncology floor and the neonatal intensive-care wing. With an obsessive puzzlement, I think: How can I help cancer patients and babies born with terrible disorders? 

The pager on my waist buzzes. A child has just died. I walk briskly but with that dread you can feel in your sternum, the wooden heels of my clogs smacking the hospital floor.

I find the family in a waiting room. In a corner around a small table, they are sobbing. I approach slowly. A woman with curly grey hair takes my hand and pleads: “Pray for my daughter. Ask Jesus to help her. Ask him to take our baby to heaven.” The father, bent over at his waist, unclutches his rib cage and reaches for my other hand. His hand drenches mine in the tears that were on his face. We form a circle, impervious to the TV and others in the room. We are there for hours with nothing but despair and our petitioning God for some solace that cannot be had. The mother says to me: “I wish I were dead. Why did this happen to my baby?”

Three years pass.

I’m not at the hospital anymore. I’m in a lab, at a computer. The screen has data on it for a baby born yesterday. I pick up the phone and make a cold call.

“Hello, is this Dr. Alvarez? My name is Charleen. I’m calling from the Washington State Newborn Screening Program about a patient of yours, Roz Sanders. Her newborn’s blood test indicates the baby may have a life-threatening condition. Here is what we recommend….”

I find out later that Roz’s baby lived. She was treated in time, before there were any symptoms. She never had to be in a bed with tubes in her tiny body on a wing I would have walked three years earlier, and Roz was spared unspeakable grief.    

More years pass. Today, I still sit in front of a computer. I don’t see patients. But I remember their stories and the disillusionment that led head on into a paradox that changed my life’s course: the best way to help patients is to prevent them from being patients; I had to understand disease; to do the work of a chaplain, I had to train as a scientist.

It took years of training and student loans worth a mortgage, but now I work to find ways to understand and intervene so that fewer people end up on those hospital wings I once walked.

Despite what you might (quite understandably) be thinking, I had rejected a non-naturalist view of the world before divinity school. I was a chaplain with the training of a linguist (and the mindset of an atheist) and chose to use my knowledge of language to listen to people: to find out what mattered regardless of the worldview people had, to gather data on what was needed. This anthropologic approach gave me qualitative information: I was privileged to the stories people shared when they were dying — and their stories changed me. I heard what mattered to them.

Only recently did I realize there was a word for the desire to understand and prevent disease, and, more generally, to help people flourish: humanism. I didn’t know it, but I was a chaplain because I was a humanist. And then humanism led me out of the hospital and into science, which is our tool for understanding the natural world. Like my patient, Otis, who left behind well-meaning but misguided causes and became a psychiatrist, I realized that science is the best means we have for understanding and preventing suffering.

Today, humanistic reasoning guides my scientific choices. It provides the ought of what I choose to study. For instance, most of us are touched by cancer. In 2012, worldwide, over 8-million people died from it. Keeping those 8 million in mind gives me my ought.

As a scientist, “nothing human is foreign to me.” Science lets me study what causes and prevents human disease. Humanism gives me the reason and the imperative to do so.

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    Short name: Systems Biology 2018
    Invitation for Systems Biology

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