Individuals and types

In a retrospective review of the origins of Antoine Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, Edward Rothstein observes that the children’s book might be ultimately “less about individuals and more about types.” It is an aviator’s perspective, sweeping across the landscape, only mildly hampered by earthly ties and human requirements, being guided by the stars. On the other hand, the message of the character of the fox is “far more grounded, empathetic, more concerned with others.”

“Saint-Exupéry may have often been caught between these two perspectives,” Rothstein writes. “He fought against detachment but also relished it, fleeing for atmospheric vistas whenever possible.”

There, briefly stated, you have the same dilemma faced daily by thousands of clinicians in medical practice.

At the outset medical education consists largely of learning how to recognize and diagnose illness. Students are taught to look for disease patterns, clinical signs that when taken together as a whole point to one specific medical malady. Unfortunately this method cultivates an attitude toward human beings as disease entities. Students, residents and even attending physicians are apt to refer to “the cholecystectomy in Room 508,” “the schizophrenic in 212,” “the diabetic in ketoacidosis in the ED.”

Such shorthand nomenclature provides a synopsis of the clinical condition and by implication, a plan for treating it. Yet if we are not careful, referring to patients as diagnostic entities or classifying them as types allows us to dehumanize them. If we come to regard patients as mere disease entities, we are less likely to suffer emotional attachment, more likely to maintain our clinical objectivity; but at what cost?

Patients who perceive that their providers are not interested in them tend to linger longer in the throes of illness than those who feel validated and nurtured as individuals. It has been shown that providing terminally ill patients with good palliative care dramatically improves the quality of life during their waning months.

At some point in their medical education it would behoove clinicians to move toward an attitude of empathy, to take a compassionate stance in dealing with patients entrusted to their care.

Perhaps that is what Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince has to teach us grownup clinicians who have chosen a career in medical practice.

In the words of the fox: “Here is my secret. It is very simple. One only sees rightly with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eye.”

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Great performances, poor players

Medicine is a learned profession, but clinical practice is above all a matter of performance, in the best and deepest sense of the word. —Frank Davidoff, M.D.

Years ago I recall watching a television documentary on Arthur Fiedler, the conductor of the Boston Pops orchestra.

The camera caught Fiedler backstage, stooped and shuffling slowly about as he struggled with his tux in preparation for the evening performance at Symphony Hall. He looked like the old man he had become—tired, fatigued, worn out. But then, as he stepped out onto the stage, a miracle happened. Fiedler’s frame straightened, his head lifted squarely onto his shoulders, a big smile flashed across his face. Proudly, he assumed his position at the head of the orchestra, pumped up by the thunderous applause.

We are what we are; we become what circumstances require of us.

Fiedler’s transition occasionally flashes through my mind as I step across the threshold into an exam room to meet a patient. Almost always I offer a big smile and extend a hand in greeting. I attempt to hold my composure throughout the interview, adjusting my demeanor to reflect the emotional state of the patient. I become, as it were, a player on stage where the art of medicine is performed countless times in daily rounds.

I might move from an encounter with a new mother, freshly primed by a healthy, thriving infant to a silent teenager, subdued in the throes of a depression. In each case I’m cast as best supporting actor, called to muster my emotive repertoire at a moment’s notice.

Sometimes I don’t feel up to the task; I’m drained, exhausted, spent. Sometimes I want to turn tail and run as fast and as far as possible to distance myself from the suffering I witness daily. I want to cover my ears, shut out the woes, the aches and complaints, for I have more than enough of my own.

None of this is permissible, of course. The patient has come seeking expertise, care and compassion—what does it matter how I, the clinician, might feel?

Here Osler’s wise words of comfort seep into my mind:

Dealing as we do with poor suffering humanity, we see the man unmasked, exposed to all the frailties and weaknesses, and you have to keep your heart soft and tender lest you have too great a contempt for your fellow creatures…

Even I, a poor player who daily struts and frets his hours upon the stage of clinical medicine, am not one to wallow in self-pity. Ultimately, I can not run from the responsibility I have for those entrusted to my care.

I call to mind the image of Fiedler stepping out on stage. Once more I buck myself up, rap quickly on the exam room door and step into the limelight for my next performance.

It will be the best I have to offer.

A plea for poetry in medical practice

I was pleased as punch to peruse New York Times executive editor Bill Keller’s delightful essay on the relevance of poetry, I Yield My Time to the Gentleman From Stratford-Upon-Avon. Here Keller expounds on the relative weight that a seemingly small, insignificant seminar carried in his course of summer study at the Wharton School of Business.

In my book we would do well to advocate for the inclusion of poetry in the medical curriculum—for largely the same reasons.  more»

Literary medical weblogs

Dear J.B.,

Your comment on my blog posting The stories we tell came in just as I was re-reading the first chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses on the front porch.  Previously, I hadn’t run across the Joyce line you quoted about all novelists having only one story, which they tell again and again; but it certainly rings true.  Hemingway said that in crafting a piece of writing he could “cut the scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away and start with the first true simple declarative sentence” he had written. In my book, anyone who takes writing seriously has to start with a desire for truth and the stamina to pursue it, no matter where it might lead.

You also mentioned Dr. Robert Coles.  I too was fortunate to hear Dr. Coles speak two decades ago at a conference on medicine and the humanities.  I recently read Handing One Another Along, a collection of lectures from an undergraduate course which Coles taught at Harvard on literature and social reflection. (The title of the book comes from a line in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, one of Coles’ favorites.) Dr. Coles, of course, is an excellent resource for many good works on medicine and literature as well.

Decades ago I got interested in the idea of using story as a vehicle to explore the doctor-patient relationship.  Throughout my medical training (I am a practicing physician assistant) I was appalled at the insensitivity which many clinicians demonstrated in dealing with patients in their time of suffering.  I struggled to understand the source of this coarseness in bedside manner.  Had these clinicians always acted this way, or through years of training had their medical education squelched whatever empathy they might have once had?  Was this perhaps a defense mechanism they had developed over time to shield themselves from the suffering that they witnessed daily in practice?  If so, what could be done about it?  (It certainly wasn’t helping the patient to heal.)  Could empathy be taught, or was it an innate trait possessed by only a minority of individuals who opted for a career in medicine?

As I began to craft narratives of patient encounters, I discovered that the act of writing itself enhanced the way I related to patients.  Somehow writing the story down served to hone an empathetic response.  It also served to help me deal with my own emotions, guilt and grief which I experienced in encounters with patients.  As my perspective developed, I was fortunate to find several like-minded souls in the social ether along the way.  Over the years I worked with other colleagues to create several online sites which continue to function as forums for clinicians and patients alike, Cell2Soul and Dermanities among them.  After reviewing my book Patients Are a Virtue, Dr. Howard Spiro asked me to consider submitting a monthly piece—“Notes from a Healer”— for the Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine; and I was also invited to write a bimonthly Humane Medicine column for the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants.  I established this weblog to serve as a repository for my writings.

My hope has always been that with ongoing exposure to these sorts of narratives, more and more medical colleagues might come round to recognizing just how intimate and profound the doctor-patient relationship truly is, and come to an understanding that there is much more to the art of healing than just closing a surgical incision, dressing a wound or writing a prescription.  Medical practice is after all the stuff of life; and because literature historically has been an attempt to capture the essence of what it means to be alive, it is small wonder that the two complement each other so beautifully.  As you so aptly put it, medicine and storytelling go hand in hand.

None of us can be all things to all men; but we can certainly make some fumbling attempts to alleviate suffering in the world and bear one another’s burdens as best we can.  As Rilke so aptly put it, perhaps if we learn to love the questions themselves, we can one day live on into the answers.

Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs

It’s a fine spring day, the last of April. I’ve been sitting outside in the back yard all afternoon, plowing through Michael Collins’ memoir Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs: The Making of a Surgeon.

The first-born in an Irish-Catholic family of eight boys, Collins pursued an undergraduate degree in liberal arts from Notre Dame University before taking a job with a construction company breaking concrete for a living. Although he enjoyed the hard work, the long hours, the camaraderie (as well as the beer consumed on the job and in the pubs afterward), Collins reached a point where he needed to make a decision about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. The answer he hit upon was to become a doctor.

It was an uphill battle. Collins had to spend two years completing pre-requisite courses in chemistry, physics and biology and sit for the MCAT just to be able to apply to medical school. Although he aced his science courses, his MCAT scores were average. Rejected by 7 of the 8 medical schools to which he applied, when Collins pleaded with the Dean of Students at Loyola in Chicago to be given a chance, he got in.

Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs describes his journey through medical school up to the beginnings of his orthopedic surgical residency at the Mayo Clinic. Collins spins the tale with wit, humor and pathos.

Throughout his training, while immersed in the seemingly overwhelming tedious task of rote memorization, Collins lapses into philosophical thought. “What, then, makes us human? A beating heart? A cogitating brain? Or is there something more, something, for want of a better word, we call a soul?”

At the conclusion of the first autopsy he witnesses, a pathologist tells him: “You have now peered into the deepest recesses of the human body and discovered the secrets of life.” As he files out of the room with his fellow students, Collins muses that “we haven’t even come close.”

Throughout his rigorous training Collins somehow manages to hold on to his humanity. He never loses sight of why he wanted to become a doctor in the first place: to render assistance to his fellow human beings, to alleviate their suffering.

It is good for seasoned clinicians to be reminded of such altruistic motives. Whenever I lose a patient to a terminal illness, I gravitate to the family. I sit with significant others, share the information I have at hand and prepare myself to listen to what they have to tell me. To do otherwise would be a disservice both to them and to myself; for in these instances, I’ve discovered that I need such interactions to help myself heal.

Patients are not the only ones who suffer.

What’s in a name?

What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
      Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part

      Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
      What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
      By any other name would smell as sweet.

Specific to the nomenclature of the physician assistant profession, the issue has become that, in this day and age, PAs no longer “assist” primary care physicians; rather, they practice with them as associates. Physician assistants have been integrated into not only primary care but practically every medical subspecialty in existence.  more»

Minimal Medicine

Sometimes I wonder whether we as a society have not over-medicalized life. We spend so much of our time browsing health columns, monitoring vital signs, ruminating on our symptoms, consulting our doctors. Many of us have become so health conscious that we balk at deviating from the straight and narrow path. When it comes to our health, we have become risk averse.

Even those of us who spend their days in clinical practice recognize that medicine does not encompass all of life.

Perhaps we need to learn to practice minimal medicine.

These thoughts ran through my head as I read Mark Bittman’s final NYT Minimalist culinary column. Over a span of thirteen years Bittman authored nearly 700 weekly columns for the NYT Dining section. As it turns out, the culinary arts share a good deal with medical practice.

“I discovered that you never cook with someone else without learning something,” Bittman writes. “In every case, there’s a two-way transfer of knowledge. If they know less than you do, you grow from teaching. If more, of course, you grow from learning.”

Bittman’s words bring to mind Sir William Osler’s description of medical teacher and student: “the pupil and the teacher working together on the same lines, only one a little ahead of the other. This is the ideal toward which we should move.” After 25 years of practice, Osler observed, “I have learned … to be a better student, and to be ready to say to my fellow students, ‘I do not know’.”

Osler reckoned that “no man can teach successfully who is not at the same time a student.”

Here’s Bittman musing again: “Usually, I was either taught to make something or I modeled it myself, as best I could. I refused to buy into the notion that there was a ‘correct’ way to prepare a given dish; rather, I tried to understand its spirit and duplicate that, no matter where I was cooking.”

Osler advocated that “the practical shall take the place of didactic teaching.” To acquire the skills necessary to perform medical procedures, students are encouraged to “see one, do one, teach one.” In 1867 the physician Oliver Wendell Holmes argued that the “most essential part of a student’s instruction is obtained … not in the lecture-room, but at the bedside.”

Bittman maintains that, “as Jacques Pépin once said to me, you never cook a recipe the same way twice, even if you try.”

How true. And you never perform a physical examination or surgical procedure in exactly the same way. There are always confounding factors which necessitate workarounds and thinking outside the box.

Medical practice, like cooking, is always a compromise. Like their culinary counterparts, clinicians “almost never have the time, the ideal ingredients or equipment, or all of the skills we’d like.”

“Shop avidly, keep a full refrigerator and pantry,” Bittman advises; “pull things out and get to work.”

Where would the good clinician be without a well-stocked surgery?

“My growing conviction that the meat-heavy American diet and our increasing dependence on prepared and processed foods is detrimental not only to our personal health but to that of the planet has had an impact on my life.”

A nutshell of sound dietary advice, one every practicing clinician should take to heart.

Bittman concludes: “What I see as the continuing attack on good, sound eating and traditional farming in the United States is a political issue.”

What I see as the continuing attack on good sound traditional medical practice has lately become a political issue as well.