The Greater Good

During a recent visit to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), I met a very pleasant young intern who had recently abandoned a career in law to take up a career in medicine, all because he’d wanted to use his talents to make the world a better place. Apparently most of the lawyers he’d met in his former life had been miserable, self-centered creatures.

He hadn’t wanted to end up like them.

So far, the intern had found the people of the NIH to be far better company than the rapacious lawyers he’d fled from. The intern observed that everyone at the NIH was there for the public good, even the patients, people who were willing to undergo trials that may or may not directly benefit them, but which would most certainly benefit others. As the intern put it, the institution was filled with do-gooders, “from the bottom up.”

I did not resent the intern for classifying patients like me as being at “the bottom” of the NIH heap. I deserved that. I myself have made a similar observation about the outstanding qualities of the good people I meet at the NIH, although in my self-serving version, “the bottom” is occupied by the NIH cab drivers —a demographic consisting primarily of highly educated immigrants, like the driver who’d earned a medical degree in his former life back in a war-torn African nation.

I don’t take anyone’s status too seriously, including my own. Status is subject to abrupt change. Things can be going fine, and then along comes a war. Or a disease. There are many paths to the NIH, indeed.

I wanted the good intern to like me. I did not correct his assumption that my primary motivation for participating in the trial for DAC HYP was a selfless one. My actual motivation was anything but selfless. DAC HYP was the only drug I’ve taken that managed to stop the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS). When I’d heard it was being taken off the North American market, I’d panicked. I’d made a few phone calls, and tracked down the doctor whom I’d initially begged to prescribe it. Joining her study at the NIH was the only way I could continue to take a drug with a known benefit.

There hadn’t been any risk involved in joining the study that I hadn’t faced already. There wasn’t even a risk of my being placed in a control group and receiving a placebo. I wasn’t at the NIH to make the world a better place. I was at the NIH to continue to take a better drug.

From what I’ve overheard from other patients at “the bottom” of the NIH barrel, we are all there primarily for our own private good. Did we want our disease cured? Hell, yes. Getting to the NIH meant cutting to the head of the line. No one gets an NIH ID without having struggled for it, including those who arrive in a wheelchair.

Human beings are complex. As for those selfish lawyers the intern was fleeing? Maybe some of those miserable human beings do in fact inadvertently contribute to the greater good while in pursuit of those big fat paychecks. More power to them.

I’d like to imagine that one or two of those fat cats may one day get sick, and have to claw themselves to “the bottom” of the heap at the NIH, where they may make their own contribution to the greater good through their rapacious pursuit of an elusive cure. The intern may think better of his former colleagues once he meets them as his patients. He may think that they have undergone some spirtual transformation. But they will be the same ambitious bastards they always were.

We all contribute to society in some way. Like the intern, I’d rather hang out with people whose positive contributions to the world are deliberate, and not inadvertent. Yet by now I’ve learned that no one’s motivations are as clear as we would like to think.

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