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Medicine in the time of climate change

I have been practicing medicine as a nephrologist for 25 years. I’ve spent most of that time living and working in Central PA. I love it here — the people, the landscapes, the towns. Retirement is on my 10-year horizon, and I’m looking squarely ahead at that point now.

I have this dream that my wife and I visit the National Parks with my kids-turned-adults, while navigating a huge gas guzzling RV, fortified with every modern convenience and snack food.

Hey, a man is free to dream, right?

But there are miles to go until then. As medicine becomes even more complex (in practice, and in practical bureaucracy), I see I need to take better care of myself. Get more vacation time. Visit my kids in college. Work on losing these extra pounds so I’ll be able to finally hike all the way up Half Dome, through Joshua Tree, and down to Crater Lake when the time comes.

This path, this plan, is my personal Holy Grail, the cultivated conclusion of my own epic journey; my rightful reward to a life well lived. It has been a life filled with helping as many patients as I could in their particular time of suffering.

But the quest for my own Grail has started to unravel in ways I can’t quite quantify. Perhaps losing my dad, losing some dear friends, looking at how much time I’ve spent away from my family working has forced me to look beyond my own horizon. And to see that there’s no way of getting there unless I look at the here and now. This exact moment.

And I realize that this isn’t just my story. It’s about our country, our species, and mostly our planet. The world is changing. The entirety of nature is changing. The very things we depend on, and take so much for granted — air and water, fertile ground, the change of seasons, sprawling coastlines — all hang in the balance.

On one side is the necessary sustainability of our God-given natural world; the acolyte for civilization as we know it.

On the other is a chain of events leading to ecological and societal collapse, and inevitably the greatest threat to human health in recorded history.

My dreams, and your dreams, and the unspoken aspirations of every global citizen, are inexorably tied to the issue of climate change.

I’ve awoken from my dream because in it, I have seen a nightmare. And once you see it, you cannot unsee it. Extreme natural disasters. Food and water shortages. Rising sea levels. Mass migrations. An end of life as we know it traded for something far less.

As a physician and as a father, I cannot let this happen. And neither can you. The scale tilts with our generation.

We, in great part, created it by ignoring it. But we’re running out of road. We’re running out of time.

The greatest of responsibilities falls on the ones who know, or should know, and who have the power to institute change. That has always started with motivated individuals rather than politicians.

Among these individuals, I am pleading with physicians, clinicians, nurses, researchers, orderlies, administrative staff — all of us in health care need to unite in one voice to uphold that moral imperative inherent in our solemn oaths. We must speak out. We must act. We must enlighten. Before it’s too late for all of us, and the souls yet to be.

So now my dream has changed. Before I reach my personal horizon, I will spend a good part of the rest of my life shouting this truth from the rooftops.

I propose that each of us, all of us, especially my peers and colleagues in medicine, look within ourselves, and then at the faces of our children and grandchildren. And remember that the patients and families we touch every day in our profession have dreams too.

There is the new Holy Grail for all of us; and it’s not in a retirement community, nor on a sandy beach, nor on a patch of wilderness out West in Wyoming or Montana. This Grail is within us, in the challenge to live up to who we ought to be, to educate the public, to affect real change in our natural world, and to reimagine a far better destiny for our children.

Dr. Sam Stea is a nephrologist practicing medicine and living with his wife and teenage children in North Central Pennsylvania.

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