Last night, as I was channel surfing, I stumbled across a PBS documentary entitled “The English Surgeon”–about a world-renowned neurosurgeon by the name of Henry Marsh who donates time and expertise to the plight of Ukrainians suffering from neurological disorders.
There was one harrowing scene in which Dr. Marsh and his Ukrainian colleague Igor speak to a patient by the name of Ulyana. She’s a meltingly beautiful young woman who came to them for treatment.
Marsh is looking over her scans. She has terminal brain cancer. Marsh and Igor hem and haw and agonize over how to break the news to her. She’s oblivious to their exchange since Marsh and Igor communicate with each other in English, of which she knows not a word.
On the outside, she looks like a woman in the pink of health and prime of life. Yet on the inside she has a time bomb which they can’t defuse. It’s only a matter of months before it detonates in her head.
There she sits–serene, trustful, hopeful, and beautiful–blissfully and poignantly innocent of the gut-wrenching exchange which these two physicians are having in her presence. They try to conceal their real feelings, lest their awkward, restive body-language betray the enormity and the futility of her situation.
In one respect it’s rather reminiscent of the prologue to Job. Just as Marsh, Igor, and the TV audience know something fateful about Ulyana that she does not–God, Satan, and the reader know something fateful about Job that he does not.
The quandary for Marsh is how to let her down as gently as possible. How to let her know that her situation is utterly hopeless. There’s no good way of putting it. Marsh can’t quite bring himself to tell her on the spot that she’d doomed. That she’s bound to die young, and there’s nothing that he or anyone else can do to help. So he asks her to come back with her mother.
It’s a dilemma. On the one hand, she’s entitled to know. Because she’s personally and profoundly affected by the outcome, the truth can’t be kept from her. But precisely because she’s personally and profoundly affected by the outcome, which is inconsolable, that’s a hard thing to tell her. What do you say when truth is your mortal enemy?
Ulyana is desperately lost, but doesn’t know it–while Marsh is desperately lost, but knows it. Which is better?
Ulyana’s plight is aggravated by the fact that, for Marsh, the brain is all we are. Once the brain is gone, that’s it. End of story.
Atheism is Job without the epilogue. All the pain. All the loss. Unending drought until, one-by-one, every living thing is brittle and brown.