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by Myles N. Sheehan, SJ, MD, Director, Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics; Professor of Medicine; and Lauler Chair in Catholic Health Care Ethics
From the December issue of The Pellegrino Report: Bioethics in Practice
Ethics can be about considering individual decisions, or it can consider who we are as persons. The latter approach, known as virtue ethics, looks to how our decisions determine who we become. It asks three questions: “Who am I?” What am I doing? “Who am I becoming by my actions?”
The past nine months have been an exceptionally trying time for our country and for health care clinicians. There have been multiple crises, each of which is daunting, and, in aggregate, can be overwhelming. For those who work at Medstar Georgetown University Hospital, the most immediate has been the Covid-19 pandemic. But this explosion of a new infectious disease, which has strained the hospital and all who care for patients, has been in the context of new episodes of violence against people of color, of economic hardship, and of a bitterly divided country racked by conspiracy theories and distrust.
Despite all this, my experience at Georgetown, as someone newly arrived and beginning a new role as Director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, I have found great hope. Why? Because I see a group of doctors, nurses, therapists, and support staff who have answered the three key questions of virtue ethics in ways that reveal they are people who care, who show dedication and skill in caring for patients even at risk to their own health, and who are becoming an even better group for excellent and compassionate care as we, please God, move into a better future.
We can live in hope as we administer (or begin administering) the vaccination that will end the pandemic and allow us to return to something like our normal practice. But those who have lived and worked in healthcare during this time are not going to be able to forget what they have gone through. Walter Brueggeman, a theologian, ordained minister, and scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures, notes in a recent book that hope and faith occur in the context of lament, recognizing and mourning what has been lost. Only in a frank acknowledgment of how bad things have been can we integrate our experience, move forward, and have hope for a future that acknowledges the past and looks to something better. Real hope is not glib and forgetful; it allows for healing and regret even while pointing to a better time.
The hope I have for the future is that we look to what we have lost and how we have been stressed but also acknowledge what has been done at MGUH. St. Paul, in an insight that goes beyond Christianity, speaks of faith, hope, and love as three things that remain but acknowledges that the greatest of these is love. Why? Faith without love easily turns into fanaticism and violence. Hope without love is the precursor to the aphorism “Be careful what you hope for.” The hope that I have comes from my witnessing the compassion of all the staff at MGUH in an extraordinarily difficult time: compassion is the expression of love for those for whom we care.
We are not out of the woods yet, and the next few months will test our ability to continue to show compassion and to grow as persons who are seeking to do what is right and good. Learning from these trying times and moving on to do better is at the heart of moral growth. As the next few weeks roll out and there is ongoing challenge, please face it with hope, a hope that acknowledges the hardships but also looks to the love shown in compassion to so many patients by so many caregivers.