Healing the Planet

Healing the Planet

A doctor is inspired by his patients to demonstrate how doing little things for the environment can make the biggest difference.

In 15 years as an emergency room doctor, I saw thousands of patients. I gave each one the very best care I could. But there were some patients I could never get out of my mind. You could say they've haunted me.

Almost every day I think about one little girl I met early in my medical training. It was a "triple H" summer day: hot, hazy and humid. "Elderly people and people with illnesses should stay indoors," the TV weatherman had warned that morning. A few hours later, I started my shift in the pediatric ER at a big city hospital.

A rescue unit radioed ahead to tell us that they were on their way. "Eight-year-old female. Severe asthma attack," the EMT said. In the small area reserved for asthma cases, there were already 15 children—and only eight beds. A nurse prepped the trauma room for the arrival.

The ambulance crew burst through the ER's double doors with the patient. A paramedic transferred the little girl to a trauma gurney and quickly put a mask over her mouth and nose to force air into her lungs from an Ambu bag. Her airways were so tight it was nearly impossible to compress the bag. "Matthew," the team leader called to me, "go ahead and intubate." 

I glanced at the paperwork. The girl's name was Etta. She and her brother had gone to their neighborhood playground to run through a sprinkler and cool off. But as soon as she started to exert herself, she had the attack.

"Etta," I whispered, leaning down so I could look right into her frightened eyes, "I'm Dr. Matt. I'm going to put a tube in your mouth and get you breathing right." Her left hand rested in mine. I felt a weak squeeze. "I won't let anything bad happen to you, sweetheart," I promised. 

"Quiet!" the team leader yelled. He held his stethoscope to Etta's chest. "Give her a breath, Matthew." I squeezed down on the bag. Etta had on a bright green bathing suit. On its front was a smiling appliquéd whale, blowing a spout of water.

I wanted to watch that whale lift up as soon as I forced air into her lungs. But the whale stayed put. Despite the intubation and the efforts of the whole pediatric emergency department, Etta died. I had broken my promise to her. 

It took a long time before I grasped what had killed Etta: air pollution. Her asthma was probably controllable otherwise. By then, I ran an ER in a small seaside town in New England. I imagined the air there was as clean as you'd find anywhere.

But something was terribly wrong. I read up on the statistics. A single power plant in Massachusetts caused 1,200 ER visits, 3,000 asthma attacks and 110 deaths a year.

In my own small community, more and more people were coming to the emergency room with asthma and other chronic illnesses. Despite all our advances in medicine, my patients were sicker than ever. And I wasn't doing enough to help them. 



One night, although I was drained after a 24-hour shift, I couldn't sleep. I tossed and turned. I couldn't get the patients I'd seen that day out of my mind. My thoughts shifted back more than a decade, to Etta. "Matthew, what's wrong?" my wife, Nancy, asked. 

"All this asthma and chronic disease," I said. "It's not the patients. It's the environment. The air we breathe is making us sick." 

I needed guidance. I found myself praying more intensely than ever. I thought about the Psalms, where I'd read, as a child, that God makes the rain fall, that he hears the cry of a hungry blackbird. That he sends the snow and wind, and knows each star by name.

One of my greatest joys as a dad is going outside at night with my kids, Clark and Emma, and looking at the stars with them. I pray that they'll be able to share that joy with their children someday. 

But I know that bright starry skies—and fewer cases of asthma—will only be seen in the future if the air is less polluted. Lord, how can I do more to help people? I prayed. How can I be a better servant?

The answer surprised me: I had to start looking at the planet as though it were my patient too. To be a good doctor, I had to be a good steward. 

Weigh in.
The first step in treating my new patient, planet Earth, was for me to take more responsibility for the way I lived. When my patients go on diets to improve their health, we start with a weigh-in.

So my family started with a weigh-in too: an energy audit. We had a big house and a couple of nice cars, but I thought we were pretty "green." 

We weren't. Looking at our most recent electricity, oil and gas bills and adding the quantities of gasoline we used in our cars and other means of transportation to calculate our usage, we were shocked by what we discovered.

The average Italian household uses about 1,800 gallons of gas a year. The average American household uses 4,483 gallons a year. My family wasn't using much less. We needed to make some basic changes as energy consumers. 

Keep it simple.
Learning how much energy our family used came as a surprise. But just as big a surprise was the realization that green values weren't anything new.

In a way, I grew up with those values on a Maryland farm, surrounded by fields and low rolling hills that seemed to go on forever. I can still summon up the blissful feeling of lying in the cool, soft grass and looking up to watch birds flying south overhead in the fall. Life's pleasures were simple, but deep.

So was my grandmother's advice: Whenever I said I wanted to buy something—a new toy, usually—she'd urge me to wait a month. "By the end," she predicted, "you'll have forgotten it, or you'll no longer want it." 

About Matthew Sleeth, M.D.

For more tips on helping the environment, get a copy of Matthew's book, Serve God, Save the Planet , at servegodsavetheplanet.org. Or, read You Too Can Be A Good Steward .

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