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Humility shocks us to humanity

31 July 2015

I DON’T like hospitals much, but I confess to an addiction to hospital documentaries. When I was a television producer, I once filmed an interview for Songs of Praise in an intensive-care unit. Later, I made a fly-on-the-wall documentary about life in a hospice. These were intense experiences. I felt hugely privileged, and at the same time a bit guilty.

Similar feelings were evoked in me by the award-winning series Great Ormond Street. This has been running since 2010, and the latest set of three programmes has just gone out on BBC2. I’ve seen the first two episodes of this series: the first about the potential of gene therapy to cure some rare childhood diseases, the second about children in need of lung transplants.

Busy hospital doctors are not always known for their refined skills of personal communication. We all know of high-powered consultants who have a reputation for arrogance and who patronise their patients. But those shown in this series were exceptional. It is hard to imagine anything more difficult than explaining to a desperately sick child and his or her parents what the possibilities and risks of a particular treatment might be.

There was an extraordinary moment in the second programme when one of the doctors remarked that her 12-year-old patient was so bright that she had no choice but to be completely truthful. Face to face, as she spelled out the seriousness of his condition, he winced, but, in seconds, he had accepted the situation, and made a courageous response.

Of course, such commitment to patients comes at a cost. A two-year-old whose lungs had failed to grow had just been put on the list for a transplant, when he suddenly deteriorated and died. He had been in and out of hospital for much of his short life, and the sadness of his death went through the whole institution. Caring at the level shown here is demanding — not only of the highest professional skills, but of the human heart.

When Jesus wanted to communicate the importance of humility, he put a child in the midst of the disciples. The point was to bring the disciples to reality; to shock them into being ordinary and human, without the bragging pretensions that we often put on to mask our vulnerability. The instinct of Jesus was played out again and again in Great Ormond Street, as a sick child became a catalyst for powerful humility on the part of immensely capable doctors. It was humbling to watch it, too.


The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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