Dr. Isabel Legarda was born in the Philippines and moved to the U.S. in 1981. She is a graduate of Harvard University and New York Medical College, where her favorite professor was a Franciscan priest who taught anatomy. Legarda lives with her family in Belmont, Mass.
I'm often asked why I chose to be an anesthesiologist. The truest answer I give is that anesthesiology is spiritual work.
The word "spiritual" can have different meanings. I think of the Latin root, spiritus: breath, inspiration — words that resound in both medicine and faith, words that help define my life and work.
My spirituality has evolved hand-in-hand with my becoming a physician. In medical school, a classmate and I once found ourselves talking not about science but about faith. We had been raised in different traditions, and he asked me, "If you could verbalize in one sentence the single most important idea at the heart of your religion, what would you say?" I imagined my religion at its origins, untouched by history. No canon of stories, traditions, rituals, no trappings — one sentence to distill everything that mattered? I paused for a second before it came to me, like a sudden breath: Every person is precious. That was the core of my faith.
But when I finished medical school and started residency, my spiritual life began to fray at the edges. I couldn't reconcile the suffering of children with the idea of a merciful God. Once, while making rounds, I unintentionally walked in on parents praying ardently at their infant daughter's hospital bed. Though I was moved, I remember wondering if it was any use. I struggled to make spiritual connections.
The moment I chose my specialty, though, I began suturing together some of those tattered edges of faith. One day, an anesthesiologist taught me how to give manual breaths — to breathe for a child while he couldn't breathe for himself. On that day, my life turned. I took on the responsibility of sustaining the life-breath of others, and slowly I opened up to Spirit once again. Now, whenever I listen to patients' breath sounds while squeezing oxygen into their lungs, or intervene when their blood pressures sag, when I hold their hands or dry their tears, I find myself literally in touch with the sacred.
Perhaps for some, this degree of control creates a sense of power. For me, it is profoundly humbling. I realize that if I forget I am standing on holy ground in the O.R. and fail to approach my patients with reverence, I risk their lives.
Every person is precious: This I believe with my whole heart. Each time I keep watch over patients and protect them when they're most vulnerable, my faith comes alive. It catches breath: Spiritus.
Independently produced for Weekend Edition Sunday by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with Viki Merrick.