The Plague by Albert Camus tells the story of Rieux, who serves as presiding doctor over a small north-African town as it is struck by a deadly plague. The plague “shuffles the cards,” as one townsperson puts it; wealth, status and occupation spare no one. As the town is quarantined and daily life grinds to a halt, Rieux and his closest friends are forced to reevaluate their understanding of their position and purpose within their community and on this earth. Addressing his friend Rambert, a journalist who got trapped in the town by mistake, Rieux says:
‘But I have to tell you this: this whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.’
‘What is decency?’ Rambert asked, suddenly serious.
‘In general, I can’t say, but in my case I know that it consists in doing my job.’
Rieux knows that he can’t single-handedly beat the plague. He knows that the plague may not be beatable. Yet he’s no longer concerned with acts of heroism such as these. Instead, Rieux holds on to just one basic concept: that of duty. It’s his duty to heal, and Rieux will continue to do so even as the world falls apart around him. Rieux heals, simply because it’s the right thing to do. It may not be heroic, but it’s decent.
The Plague struck a chord with me, as recently I’ve begun to finalize my decision to pursue medicine. When I was younger, my goals were more idealistic–more heroic, perhaps. I looked back on the greatest triumphs of scientific research–Salk’s polio vaccine, the discovery of the double helix, and so on–and wanted to write my own chapter in the history of science. I even wrote my college essay on my hero, Charles Darwin, who devised his revolutionary theory while on an expedition intended to study barnacles. Lately, however, I suppose my goals have decreased in scope. I’ve chosen a career which I know will save a few lives, but which almost certainly will not change thousands. It’s the “sacrifice of the physician,” as I call it.
I recently talked about this with Dr. Krieger, a neurosurgeon at Children’s Hospital LA. I told him that, while noble, his career probably wouldn’t make a longterm difference. To this, he replied, “Well, did Watson and Crick make a difference? Depending on your degree of nihilism, no one makes a difference.” According to his argument, nothing is absolute, so you might as well choose a career with a guaranteed reward. Better to be sure to change one life than to attempt to save many while risking saving none. I may not change science, but if I change one life for the better, that should be enough reward for me.
I argue that he who saves but one life, especially while making the physician’s sacrifice, is not merely decent, but is indeed heroic.