One of the characters in Albert Camus' 1956 novel "The Plague" is a physician who never abandons his patients during a deadly epidemic. Writing about that fictional healer in a new book of essays titled "Some Chose To Stay: Faith and Ethics in a Time of Plague," Dr. Alan C. Mermann notes that a major theme of Camus' novel is: "It's possible to learn to be with and for people."
This is a lesson that Mermann has helped many physicians-in-training master at the School of Medicine, where he serves as chaplain and clinical professor of pediatrics.
Ordained as a minister in the United Church of Christ after 25 years in private pediatric practice, Mermann notes that at Yale, where students may hold any -- or no -- religious beliefs, his work usually has
little to do with "formal" religion and more to do with helping students understand what it means, and what it takes, to be a good doctor.
The medical school students he works with want to become "caring, compassionate physicians," says Mermann, but they worry about losing their compassion as they train in hectic hospital settings, where patients may seem less like people than the subjects of clinical laboratory reports.
In his essay on Camus' novel, titled "Alone Together," Mermann describes a seminar he leads at Yale, in which first-year medical students are paired with seriously ill -- often dying -- patients. The students in this seminar learn first-hand the importance of being "with and for others," says Mermann. "The patients teach the students."
Mermann also includes students in the meetings of Yale-New Haven Hospital's pediatric bioethics committee, which he chairs. There, parents, physicians and others debate and make recommendations concerning the best course of treatment for seriously ill youngsters -- such as a three-year-old child who has serious brain damage after a car accident. Mermann says he hopes that, by attending these meetings, the students will learn that in medicine, there are often no easy answers, and that the practice of medicine should be collegial, not competitive. "We're in this together," he tells them.
The author of many journal articles,
Mermann wrote the Yale Physicians Oath, a contemporary version of the Hippocratic oath and is editor of the widely used college textbook "Death, Dying and Bereavement."
In "Some Chose To Stay: Faith and Ethics in a Time of Plague," published recently by Humanities Press, Mermann describes his own experiences in finding
a foundation on which to build a life of conviction and commitment. In one essay,
he tells of his training in a hospital in the South, where adults were segregated by color but children were not because they were considered "too young to understand the importance."
He also writes about the literature that has helped shape his own personal code of convictions. He recalls, for example, the first time he read Alan Paton's 1948 novel "Cry, the Beloved Country." The book, one of the first to examine the effects of racial oppression in South Africa, "laid out the options that confronted me, as if with a call," says Mermann, who has been active in the civil rights and peace movements, as well as efforts to relieve poverty and hunger. He lists the Bible, Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" and the poetry of Emily Dickinson among the works that have inspired him.
The essays in "Some Chose To Stay" also look at such social "plagues" as disease, poverty, racism and war. In "Finding the Foundation," for example, Mermann examines both past and present plagues and asks whether it is possible to prepare for dealing with terrible situations. In "Time of the Silence of God," he writes about the Holocaust and finding "a way to live in a faith that acknowledges the pervasive nature of evil." In "No Remembrance of Things Past," he discusses the realities of Alzheimer's disease. In "A Present Danger, A Clear Warning," he examines how to respond to the AIDS epidemic, and to all plagues. And in "We Are the Ultimate Plague," he talks about how humans can keep from destroying "our precious earth."
"Faith, conviction and commitment are central to understanding and acting," writes Mermann in "They Chose To Stay." He adds: "If and when we decide to save
precious lives, offer hope, and be with and for those who suffer and die, then we will be living the life we were meant to live. Faith can inform a lively and dedicated response to plague."