Today, Massachusetts General Hospital celebrated its 200th anniversary in Boston, and I was a guest speaker in the hospital’s “Ether Dome”—the operating theater where, in 1846, the first surgery was performed with ether as an anesthetic. I was invited to speak because for the past three years I have been writing the history of the hospital, with my daughter Martha as co-author. Our book, Something in the Ether, goes on sale April 1.
It’s a project I’m proud of, but that’s not the reason for this post. In the end, pride has nothing to do with it. I arrived at the Ether Dome on the top floor of the Bulfinch Building, thinking with a mix of friendly anticipation and professional calculation about who might be there: the wonderful transplant surgeon who was on the book committee; the retired female administrator who became my trusted councilor, my cheerleader, my angel; the supportive wife of arguably the most powerful man at MGH. I imagined all the hospital bigwigs, the many people I had worked and negotiated with for three years. There was some anticipatory pride in that. But then I looked up to the top row of seats and noticed Jessica, Esther, Matt, and Andrea.
These are four members of the Boston School of Community that I visit many Tuesday nights, all of them workers at MGH. Our School of Community in my town meets on Fridays, tonight in fact, so I like to go to Boston three days ahead the better to follow the leaders there.
I think my four friends in the top row would agree that there’s really only one thing that has brought us together as friends and keeps us together: Christ. We have Him in common, along with our desire to convert our lives more completely to Him. Jessica, Esther, Matt, and Andrea are younger than me by an average of 30 years a piece. This alone makes our friendship unusual. Each is immersed in a different area of the medical world, while I, notwithstanding the book I just wrote, know little of medicine. We went to different schools and today we walk different streets.
Still, I ask myself what is different between our friendship and that of any other five people belonging to a club, any five fans of the same sports team, any five coworkers in the same business. The difference for me is clearly perceptible in the distinct joy I feel seeing them there and knowing why they are there. They are there not to advance their causes or careers. (They sacrificed valuable time from the middle of their day.) They are not there for fun. (Seats in the Ether Dome are classically non-ergonomic where the human rear is concerned.) They are not there because they have anything to gain from my influence, or I from theirs. I could list a dozen other reasons why they might ordinarily have been there, but none of these apply.
I know they are there for Christ, for the friendship we share. I know that this friendship is different for me because—while I felt the sort of sweet swelling pride one feels in a grandfather’s presence when I saw the elderly transplant surgeon, and a flattered sort of self-importance mixed with genuine affection upon encountering the sly gaze of the retired administrator—I felt nothing but joy upon seeing Jessica, Matt, Esther, and Andrea.
Then I looked down at my phone and noticed a message from Lorenzo, another Boston CL friend and MGH-er, who was texting me from Chicago. Next time I see him, I’ll kid him about not being in the Ether Dome (where are his priorities?!) but I will do it with pure joy.
After the talk, Jessica, Matt, Esther, and Andrea invited me to join them in the hospital chapel to recite the Angelus. Of course, I followed them.