Excerpt: "The Language of God"

At the same time, now only twenty-two but married with a bright and inquisitive daughter, I was becoming more social. I had often preferred to be alone when I was younger. Now, human interaction and a desire to contribute something to humanity seemed ever more important. Putting all of these sudden revelations together, I questioned everything about my previous choices, including whether I was really cut out to do science or carry out independent research. I was just about to complete my Ph.D., yet after much soul-searching, I applied for admission to medical school. With a carefully practiced speech, I attempted to convince admissions committees that this turn of events was actually a natural pathway for the training of one of our nation's future doctors. Inside I was not so sure. After all, wasn't I the guy who had hated biology because you had to memorize things? Could any field of study require more memorization than medicine? But something was different now: this was about humanity, not crayfish; there were principles underlying the details; and this could ultimately make a difference in the lives of real people.

I was accepted at the University of North Carolina. Within a few weeks I knew medical school was the right place for me. I loved the intellectual stimulation, the ethical challenges, the human element, and the amazing complexity of the human body. In December of that first year I found out how to combine this new love of medicine with my old love of mathematics. An austere and somewhat unapproachable pediatrician, who taught a grand total of six hours of lectures on medical genetics to the first-year medical student class, showed me my future.

He brought patients to class with sickle cell anemia, galactosemia (an often-fatal inability to tolerate milk products), and Down syndrome, all caused by glitches in the genome, some as subtle as a single letter gone awry.

I was astounded by the elegance of the human DNA code, and the multiple consequences of those rare careless moments of its copying mechanism. Though the potential to actually do anything to help very many of those afflicted by such genetic diseases seemed far away, I was immediately drawn to this discipline. While at that point no shadow of possibility of anything as grand and consequential as the Human Genome Project had entered a single human mind, the path I started on in December of 1973 turned out fortuitously to lead directly into participation in one of the most historic undertakings of humankind.

This path also led me by the third year of medical school into intense experiences involving the care of patients. As physicians in training, medical students are thrust into some of the most intimate relationships imaginable with individuals who had been complete strangers until their experience of illness. Cultural taboos that normally prevent the exchange of intensely private information come tumbling down along with the sensitive physical contact of a doctor and his patients. It is all part of the long-standing and venerated contract between the ill person and the healer. I found the relationships that developed with sick and dying patients almost overwhelming, and I struggled to maintain the professional distance and lack of emotional involvement that many of my teachers advocated.

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