When Healthcare Can’t Heal


A two-year-old child of one of my colleagues just got a glob of Vaseline in his hair.  After trying everything obvious and searching the internet, nothing seemed to get the Vaseline out of his hair.  I’m privileged to work with a group of about fifty pediatricians, and most of us are parents.

When we’re totally stuck as a parent, or a doctor, we turn to our colleagues for help.  Here’s what this group of Washington University pediatricians came up with as remedies for Vaseline in hair (note: this does NOT constitute medical advice):

  • Dove soap
  • Dawn soap, and patience
  • Cornstarch powder
  • “Wash his hair with goop.”
  • “5-7 shampoos”
  • “Tell everyone you’re doing a 50s greaseball theme.”
  • “Paul Mitchell Tea tree shampoo with 3 washes… watch the eyes, it burns.”
  • “Scissors”

Here’s the ugly truth: doctors just don’t know how to fix everything.  We don’t really know how to get Vaseline out of toddler hair, and we really can’t cure a lot of pediatric ailments.  The longer I practice medicine, the more I recognize the limitations of the healing arts.

I can treat an asthma flare-up, but I can’t make the disease go away.  I can’t do much for the common cold.  Baby with fever?  I can spend several thousand dollars of your money on X-rays and lab tests, and I probably should, but most of the time I can’t make your baby’s infection go away.  And nothing has highlighted my medical impotence more than parenting my toddler with multiple food allergies.

Yet the hope that medicine can fix our imperfect minds and bodies is more alive than ever.  I see this false hope perpetuated through the business of medicine—from those trying to make money.  I see it in prescription drug advertising and hospital slogans.  But most of all I see this false hope in our hearts.

We want to live healthy long lives but life is fatal and rarely easy.  Ultimately, our hope resides in Christ, not medicine.

For many Americans, the false hope of modern medicine has already come to fruition.  These are the Americans who have been hurt by the false hopes we’ve propagated.  Sadly, they distrust our healthcare systems.  They are afraid to vaccinate their children, and avoid most medications.  They look to the new booming business of alternative health care.

As Catholics, we believe in the healing power of Christ.  Modern medicine is one of the tools though which God works to provide this healing.  We are not Christian Scientists, who avoid medical science and make their best effort to rely on divine healing.  The Catholic Church has a long and beautiful history of support for the healing arts.

I want our country to have better access to quality health care.  I want a greater percentage of our country insured.  But I also want to be realistic. Every healthcare dollar we spend is one dollar we are not spending on education and other valuable endeavors.

People talk about waste in the healthcare system, but waste is only part of the problem.  First, we need open our eyes to the false hope of medicine and take personal responsibility for our heathcare spending.

Copyright 2014 Kathleen Berchelmann, MD


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  1. The false hope of medicine, fueled by an almost irrational fear of death because our society has removed it from plain view. Where wakes were once held in homes, now they are in funeral parlors. Death among the young is much less common, and the young feel more invulnerable than ever. Death has been removed from daily life for many of us and as a result, has grown to be a monster stoking great fear. And many people no longer practice their faith which addresses this very fear. It’s amazing how much the healthcare system has evolved since the 19th century. We really do feel we can cure everything and everyone feels entitled to that cure, even if it doesn’t exist. Death is not pleasant, it is scary, but it can be beautiful too. The false hope that medicine can cure all robs all of us of that beauty unless we actively seek it. Because despite today’s medicine, we still do all die.

    BTW, did you get the vasoline out? 🙂

  2. Interesting column Dr. Kathleen. It’s unrelated to your point, but it reminds me of the fact that when my children were little, my husband (an ER doctor) was NEVER home since his hours were so bad in those days. One time my younger son fell and badly hurt his arm. I called Greg to tell him I was taking Adam to the children’s hospital and he told me (over the phone) “It’s not broken. Just wait until I get home.” I listened to my mom instincts — turns out it was broken in two places! I’ve teased my husband since then about thinking he has “xray vision over the phone”. Thanks for raising some important points!

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