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.
The road to medical school mostly requires good grades in the hard sciences, high entrance exam scores, volunteering, and other quality extracurricular experiences. Once in medical school, the curriculum is a rollercoaster ride of learning anatomy, physiology, pathology, diagnosis, and treatment. At first glance, the journey seems to leave little room for anything else. Along the way, we also often hear about cultivating behavioral decorum and social intelligence as soon as our third year clinical rotations begin, or possibly even sooner.
I remember the first time I was introduced to Oliver Sacks. At the time, I was still well on my way to pursuing a career in music, set on the idea that music, and not science, would be my passion.
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.
Mid-November, and Christmas music is already blaring from speakers camouflaged in silver holiday tinsel. Frank Sinatra’s croons reverberate throughout the barren expanse that is Somerset Mall at 8 a.m. “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…” It’s raining outside. I begin to laugh and try to explain the apparent irony to my grandmother, but my attempt gets lost in translation. My Chinese is poor. Her English, poorer. After 12 years in the United States, Pópo has accumulated a modest vocabulary, most of which she’s forgotten.
“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.”
“Mais où sont les neiges d’antan? But where are the snows of yesteryear?” Not many people are experts in medieval French poetry. It’s a tiny corner of academia, filled with people whose passions and imaginations lie a millennium in the past. And so many of those academics, and I do use that term in the most tweed-wearing, bookish, kindly way possible, have their classes relegated to the far corners of campus, to buildings who are themselves of a different century. Or at the very least, of an era before air conditioning.
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.