An Interview with a GP

An Evening With Dr. Christoph Steurer
Christoph remembers meeting CityGate’s director, Marsh Moyle, more than twenty years ago, over coffee in the twenty second district of Vienna. Marsh and Tuula were still working with Operation Mobilisation. All of them were excited about the work of L’Abri and how the Bible should influence our society. As part of the Gospel in Society Summer Session, participants are exposed to Christians working in different professions. Christoph joined us for an evening and answered our questions.

Why did you choose to become a doctor?

As a child I was always attracted to medical books. When I was fourteen, a teacher of biology was explaining the muscle system. I was fascinated about its function, the complexity of it and how it all works together to allow us to do something so simple (we think) as to walk across the room. You could attend lectures every day for more than a month, just about the things that go into making walking possible, and you wouldn’t finish. Since then I’ve always known I’d like to be a doctor.

At age sixteen I discovered that it is possible to be serious about religion but not to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That’s when I committed my whole life to God. I’ve never doubted that being a doctor is what fit best in my life. For me it’s an ideal combination—to use my interests and skills along with the challenge of Scripture to help your neighbour and do good to them.

After finishing medical school I did a three year internship at a hospital in Vienna. I also spent two months working with a local doctor in Nigeria to see if my calling might be to foreign missions. It was very interesting to see the local customs and food and to get to know people from another culture, but it was clear this wasn’t my calling. At the end of the three year internship is when people normally decide whether to specialise. After three years in the hospital, where you have so many authorities over you and are always doing what someone else thinks should be done, it is difficult to develop your own ideas and see what you can actually do. I decided to open my own family practice. It’s been going for eighteen years. My wife, Lili, also a doctor, works with me.

Do you like being a General Practitioner?

One thing that fascinates me is seeing people from all ages, from the unborn right through to the end of life. I see many special developments that the body goes through, how it changes over a lifetime.

Sometimes I regret not becoming a specialist. As a general practitioner (GP), you realise how much you don’t know. Occasionally patients come and ask my opinion about some new medication they’ve just read about on the Internet and you realise they know more about that specific thing than you do. There are so many advances, new products and techniques in the various fields of medicine that even specialists have problems to keep up. The fascination of a specialist is that they are able to concentrate and get very good at something that maybe no one else can do. A patient of mine has a very rare lung disease. Twenty years ago she would have already died. Six months ago she received a lung transplant. A general practitioner will never develop that type of skill. But the woman still needs a GP, even with her new lungs. She’ll be on medication to suppress her immune system for the rest of her life.

This morning several people came for blood tests. Two days a week we schedule routine tests—checking cholesterol levels, high blood sugar, HIV, many things. One of the biggest frustrations are those people who come in asking for treatment for a specific ailment, but you know they have no intention to change the lifestyle that contributes to the problem: diabetics who do not watch what they eat; people who are very overweight but who aren’t willing to lose weight. When you look at a patient, you must look beyond the purely physical. You need discernment and wisdom, to try and understand their environment and the psychological and spiritual struggles which can affect the physical.

What discoveries about the body show you how wonderful God is in making his creation?

Everything. One specific area is the function of the brain and the ability to train it life-long. People who have learned other languages, who study and use their minds the whole of their life, studies show that even when they get Alzheimer’s disease, it is not as severe as for people who do not actively train their minds.

I am fascinated with our modern lifestyles and what technology can do. But every coin has two sides, even if we only see one of them. An older patient lives at home and her bedroom is upstairs. By using a stair-lift she can not only stay in her house, but in a short time go downstairs from her bedroom and out to work in her garden. This would not be possible if she had to make it up and down the stairs on her own. That’s wonderful. On the other side, because she doesn’t use the muscles in her legs they get weaker and weaker. This is the problem with many young people’s lifestyles today. We are more and more lazy. Instead of going outside to have a snowball fight, we can sit inside and have a snowball fight with someone else via our computer. A study done on the difference in how far young people today can throw a ball compared to just twenty years ago shows a five to six metre decrease in the distance. This has contributed to the modern plague of diabetes in people over age fifty. Diabetes isn’t just a problem of eating too much sugar. Our muscles break down sugar. But when we are twenty we get a job in an office and go everywhere by car, our muscles decrease. Over the years we eat as much as ever but we don’t have the build-up of muscle mass to metabolise it sufficiently and so our sugar level rises. The solution to diabetes in the elderly is exercise. Our muscles can be trained our whole life-long. Maybe not as strenuously as when we are younger, but e can do weight-lifting, walk, ride bicycles or swim.

What about issues for the unborn and abortion; issues for the very old or ill and euthanasia?

Some people say abortion is the “easy solution”. Every abortion has a tremendous affect on the girl and on the boy. Studies say that nearly 2/3rds of marriages end after there has been an abortion. It has spiritual, psychological and physical affects. It’s the same with euthanasia, which is already legal in parts of Europe. We have lost the idea that we are not the ones who decide whether or not we are born and that no one has the right to decide whether someone else is born or when they die. It’s a challenge for doctors to stand up and say life is precious from beginning to the end. Psalm 139 v 13 says, “You created my inmost being …” The Bible gives an explanation of why it is that we are so wonderfully made. God has created us in his image. That’s one reason why Christian belief is actually necessary for my job.

As a doctor, you are to some degree idealised. People sometimes expect an almost magical solution to their problems—take this pill and all will be well.

A personal consequence of this is that it is difficult for me to tell other people about my problems. An image is created: my patients are the ones who have problems and I have answers. I once had to fall on my face, hard, and discover that it was my fault. Other things help you get a more balanced picture of yourself, like experience. This morning a lady tried to flatter me in order to get something. She said I am so wise and I started to feel very good about myself and my advice. Then, just before she left, she said, “I need this doctor’s letter signed in order to get out of work for the next few days.” That’s what she wanted. Experience tells you who really appreciates your attention and who doesn’t. You learn to see your strengths. People say that I have an ear for elderly people and yes, that’s true. But you also learn to recognise where the image is not true.

Do your patients know you are a Christian?

There are rumours that I am a Jehovah’s Witness. In Austria they are usually the only people who quote Bible verses by heart. Many patients know I’m a Christian, some do not. There are experiences you have each day that all people have to somehow handle. My bicycle was stolen this morning when I was visiting an older lady in her home. Evil affects all of us. The question is, “How do you deal with it?”

Do you always tell the truth to your patients?

I don’t think I’ve ever lied to a patient. But it’s also very important to find out when they are open to the whole truth. If you get into a situation when they are not able to hear it, you stop until they are.

When I make a mistake, it is sometimes hard to admit it. You don’t have to lie, but you don’t always tell everything—that you prescribed a wrong course of treatment or forgot to do something. This is especially difficult in the beginning of your career. You know you are human and make mistakes, but this is not something you are taught to deal with in medical training. This is a tragedy.

How can someone remain objective and yet not become cold or detached, but to remain human with your patients? Both are necessary. If you really listen to your patients, the more their problems can become your own. The patient wants an answer to their medical problems, but when you become too involved you can forget to think in medical terms. So can you say, “No, I won’t become involved at all, I’ll just work like a computer?” Is this being the better doctor? I take the crucifixion as a model. The God of the Bible deals both with the problem and is personal, without becoming confused. The incarnation of Christ was very personal; he took our sins on the cross and desires a very close relationship with every person. At the same time, God the Father saw that the problem of sin was properly dealt with. How should I, as a doctor, deal with patients? Be objective, which is very important so you can see and deal with the problem, but also to be very human and personal. We are created in His image. The model for how I should live and work as a doctor is rooted in the very existence of God himself. It’s amazing.

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