As a medical student deeply interested in education, books, and writing, I try to read widely, and am always looking for reading material at the intersection of these interests. Thus when a friend of mine described Robert Coles as a gifted writer, one who placed great emphasis on the value of stories to the practicing clinician, he seemed like the perfect fit. I had previously read some of his shorter pieces, but my friend suggested I read The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination.
For most first-and second-year medical students, residency is only in their imagination, and it is not truly until the third and fourth years that it becomes something they can imagine very well. It is the mystical land of having ‘made it’: getting through medical school, having the title MD or DO finally applied to you, and being thrown head first into the clinical world.
Last year, I was struck by the news that Dr. Oliver Sacks had died — I am not sure when I first heard about him and his writings, but I was familiar enough to feel a tinge of sadness at his passing. I’d read a short story or essay here and there, but I realized that I had not read any of his full-length books, and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat had been sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time. The timing to begin reading it, it turns out, could not have been better: I started it during the last week of my Medical Neuroscience course, and continued it through my next course, The Mind.
Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician is Dr. Sandeep Jauhar’s second book. In keeping with good narrative nonfiction, Jauhar offers a mix of personal stories, thoughtful interludes and an obvious effort to back up claims with facts and statistics. He offers compelling anecdotes, which allow the reader to situate him or herself into the context of health care in New York City. These personal vignettes are especially helpful for highlighting concepts difficult to discuss; an ethical dilemma or complex criticism of the health care system becomes much easier to understand when tied to a tangible person or place.
Like many bibliophiles, I keep a running list of books “To Read”, and I have a complicated system for deciding what I will read next; because of this, any new recommendation must go to the end of the queue. Every now and then, though, a book comes along that disrupts my whole system. In this case, I read an excerpt in The New Yorker that moved me: I was struck by the clarity of the writing and finished the excerpt wanting to know more. Over the next week, three different people recommended it and I began seeing it everywhere. Sensing that this book was something important, I bought and immediately began reading When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi.
Few doctors in the modern era have established themselves so securely as both doctor and writer as to be easily recognized in both circles; this is perhaps because of the difficult and time-demanding nature of both careers. One notable exception is Dr. Atul Gawande, a renowned general surgeon in Boston, MA, who also happens to be a widely published and well-known author of several books. In his most recent book, “Being Mortal,” it is clear that he has grown, not only as a writer, but as a doctor and a human being as well – which, after all, is what this book is all about.
It is no great mystery that burnout is prevalent in the field of medicine, and it almost seems as if studies and articles highlighting this sad and disturbing truth are published daily. The reality is that doctors and doctors-in-training often struggle with their profession of choice, citing disillusionment, depression, long hours, exhaustion and lack of empathy as either symptoms or causes of feeling burnt out.
“Look, you’re not out on a four-year picnic at that medical school, so stop talking like a disappointed lover. You signed up for a spell of training and they’re dishing it out to you, and all you can do is take everything they’ve got, everything they hand to you, and tell yourself how lucky you are to be on the receiving end — so you can be a doctor, and that’s no bad price to pay for the worry, the exhaustion.”
In his Pulitzer-prize winning book, Siddartha Mukherjee, MD sets an ambitious, seemingly impossible goal: to tell the story of cancer, a prevalent disease in modern medicine as well as the public mind, in a way that is both technically accurate and accessible to readers of all levels. This goal is complicated by the breadth of background details, years of medical research and countless scientific papers that are woven into the connotations of the word ‘cancer’ — connotations that for many are terrifying, confusing and depressing.
Some people’s life stories are worth writing down because of one thing or several things they did that had a historical significance; others are worth writing because of the diverse experiences and interesting stories that filled their lives. In the case of Ben Carson, both of are true. In his autobiographical work “Gifted Hands,” the pediatric neurosurgeon outlines his fascinating life journey – one filled with inspiration, adversity and spirituality.
In his fictional novel “When Crickets Cry,” Charles Martin, who is not a medical doctor, takes on a difficult task: to write convincingly in first person as a medical doctor. This is an understandably difficult task, but the author is thorough in his discussion of the medical aspects of the story. He also convincingly creates a multi-dimensional character who is much more than a doctor, and it is the author’s proficiency at characterization that makes the novel a fascinating and compelling read.
As medical students, we are handed many books and are told to read them — and memorize them, usually. In addition to the technical, fact-filled and scientific books we are given, medical students would probably benefit from being handed a self-help book or two. It is interesting that medical students, a group intent on making our lives about caring for others, so often fail to care for ourselves. The difficulty with medical students is that …