28 January 2020

Glimmers of hope amid the embers

General Practice Public Health

Well we have certainly had better starts to a new year, haven’t we?

It’s hard to conjure up that usual January enthusiasm for all the potential of the coming year when the air is thick with the smoke of destruction and every news bulletin starts with the confronting images of infernos or devastation.

For me personally, I’m writing this at the bedside of one of my closest friends as she wages the unwinnable battle against terminal cancer.

Certainly not where any of us wanted to be at the start of 2020. And I’m here not only because our almost lifelong friendship but I’m also the “doctor friend”, the one who can understand and interpret the foreign language of the condition and its treatment as told by the army of professionals who are managing her treatment. A precious little contribution in the scheme of things.

In fact, both scenarios are filling me with an overwhelming sense of helplessness. I think it’s because, as doctors, it is in our job description to be able to alleviate pain and suffering. We should always be able to offer something to cure or at least control the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that mother nature throws our way. We should be able to do something.

Watching bushfires that are deemed unstoppable; watching cancers that spread despite state-of-the-art treatments are as humbling as they are distressing. Despite all our knowledge, skills and resources, we are such small pawns in the overall game of life. As hard as it may be to accept, there is only so much we can do.

Is there an upside in all of this? Admittedly finding any positives could be deemed as a challenge, but at least in the case of the fires there have perhaps been one or two.

I know it’s a sweeping statement, but having a crisis of the magnitude of the bushfires and having it communicated worldwide through so many channels, certainly appears to bring out the best in people.

The compassion for the individuals affected and the country as a whole has been incredible. Absolutely everyone – from artists to schools – it would seem wants to help.  In addition to those amazing volunteer firefighters, we’ve seen a deluge of funds, resources, personnel support, donated skills and contributions from around the world.

In our own profession there has been an outpouring of generosity with doctors continuing to serve communities that have been ravaged or in imminent danger from fires, or offering their services as locums to help where local resources are stretched. But often the stories about these doctors are as much about their contribution as community members as it is about their contribution as doctors. They are part of the whole.

There is something about that unity of spirit that augers well for the future of mankind. Across the population, when confronted with an all-powerful enemy, we are a single community, all in it together. Hopefully, the poor people directly affected by these disasters will be able draw strength or at least comfort from this.

Another possible positive (in a sea of negatives) is the increased momentum to take action on climate change. How much of the devastation caused by the fires can be attributed to man’s negative influence on the environment remains unclear, but regardless, the crisis has put the focus on how we must respect nature and how vulnerable we are to changes in our physical environment.

We can talk about the effect of climate change on health, but the issue is so much broader than this. Our role as doctors is really secondary to our role as human beings in the push to protect our planet.

Nobody would ever think such destruction as we have already seen this year – be it from fire or now flooding or hail – could ever be a good thing. But maybe such a fundamental lesson in humility could be seen as something of a reality check. There are forces so much greater than us out there.

Sometimes what we have to offer as individuals is as important as what we have to offer as doctors. Humanity and compassion may perhaps be more valuable traits than clinical acumen and diagnostic skills.

At least I hope so. Because, as much as I hate to admit it, sometimes that’s all I’ve got to offer.