I recently spent a few days visiting the hospital to take care of a loved one who had some complications from a cancer procedure. I marveled at the sophisticated medical technologies that were being used so expertly to treat her.
At one point, a doctor came into the room and removed fluid buildup from around her lungs using what could only be described as a pocket sonogram. It was remarkable.
We should be grateful for all these technological advances. In “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis writes, “It is right to rejoice in these advances and to be excited by the immense possibilities which they continue to open up before us.” St. John Paul II said something similar in an address to scientists: “Science and technology are wonderful products of a God-given human creativity.”
However, we seemed to have crossed a strange line in our race to overcome the material limitations of nature. Just like the pocket sonogram that can see parts of the body hidden from the human eye, our efforts to transcend material limitations also means that we can lose sight of the whole human person. The patient becomes a collection of body parts and conditions to be treated.
The consequences of this shift in perspective are worth paying attention to. We adopt systems and processes that privilege the technology over the physical and spiritual needs of human beings.
When the nurses enter the room with their rolling computer stations, we don’t see their faces, just the back of the computer screen. The computer affords them the ability to accurately track the dosage and timing of multiple medications, but the screen blocks their faces and their humanity.
Faces can smile and wink and nod to show compassion and care, lifting the spirits of a patient who is far more than their sickness. The poor and the sick are an image of God and an image of the suffering Christ.
Something as simple as thirst takes two forms in a hospital setting. A refreshing glass of water can nourish the body but a caring glance or compassionate touch can address a spiritual thirst that we all have for human love and contact, especially when we are in pain.
On the last morning of her hospital stay, my loved one asked the nurses if they could help her wash up. Her hair and face and teeth had not been cleaned in days. They agreed to help her and began preparing a basin of soapy water and soaking some soft white towels in warm water.
The nurses gently wiped her face and hands, gave her some water and toothpaste to brush with and gently washed her hair. All of the technical equipment was turned off and put to the side for a moment, a silent witness to the power and beauty of analog human compassion.
The author, Brett Robinson, is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.