Let me tell you a story. It’s about pain—my pain, your pain, every American’s pain. It’s about my grandmother’s pain as she suffered through treatment-induced dementia while dying from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. It’s about my cousin’s pain as she went through surgery after surgery in an effort to give her some semblance of an enjoyable life. Medical technology improved both their lives, but the solutions weren’t perfect.
It’s about other pain, too. Daily pain. Broken bones don’t heal quite right. Scar tissue stays. If my dad forgets to take his medicine for a day, his joints creak and his vision devolves. My grandfather has one functioning eye, and my other grandfather has Parkinson’s and sometimes can’t control his movements. He receives deep brain stimulation, an advanced medical technique, and it helps. It’s about people who skip insulin injections to avoid the fear and pain.
I owe my humble respect to the suffering of my loved ones, and to everyone who suffers. I’m writing about this today because of a single phrase Milan Yager, the director of the American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, said to me today over lunch.
“All of us know we’re going to have pain in our lives.”
Look at that sentence. It’s a simple, obvious sentence, but it carries a lot of information about the human condition. It reminded me that helping people with pain is why I chose biomedical engineering. It’s why people care about my work. Heck, if I make something new and useful with my research, it may save me from some pain later in life. That would really bring my research full-circle. Somehow, I had dug a trench so deep in the grunt work of biomedical engineering that I lost track of the end-goal: less pain.
If I can’t remember why I’m doing what I’m doing, how can I expect anyone else to know or remember? So let me come clean about my (our) work. In the broadest interpretation of the profession, biomedical engineers are here to solve your pain. Doctors and other medical professionals are tasked with the monumental task of treating and managing your pain (and yes, often doctors contribute to the work of solving pain), but biomedical engineering arose relatively recently with the lofty ambitions of developing lasting solutions. Today, we’re one of the key cogs in the medicine machine. Fortunately, some of our efforts have really, really worked.
Now, a natural caveat for all of us currently in the trenches is that these projects take time. Real solutions take real time, and often it may not seem clear how our work solves your pain. That’s on both us and you. The gap is often considered a leap of faith by the nonscientific observer, but I urge you to ask the questions. As your publicly funded biomedical engineer and scientist, I am obligated to do my best to develop and explain that connection to you. But you have to take the time to understand and then believe that explanation and keep some trust that through years of research and development, I and other biomedical engineers are creating tools to solve your pain.
Please, if you are confused about some technology or technique in medicine, ask us. We want to connect these solutions to your problems—it’s why we do it. It also helps to keep us focused. We may not have all the answers, but we are trained to help find them, and it is our duty to help explain them.
Finally, if you like what medical technology has done for your pain or you are concerned that the medical technology isn’t good enough, consider making that a priority in your political decisions. Yes, privately owned charities are making big steps in private funding for medical research, but that’s not an excuse to scale down government support. Yes, people in the US think we should be supporting medical research when asked in a poll, but because our political interests are more immediately invested elsewhere, those ideas don’t get implemented into policies. Every single person wants less pain. Talk about it. Learn about it. Vote on it.
Ask me about it.