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When Doctors Write, Part II

Not long ago, I wondered aloud on this blog why so many doctors write so well. The two doctors I mentioned in detail were Jerome Groopman and Atul Gawande, both of whom have new books out. For those of you interested in this subject, take note that Abigail Zuger, who is an M.D. herself, has written an article in the New York Times on the proliferation of doctor-writers.

Even more interesting to my mind is this essay by Groopman, also in the Times, in which he describes a freshman seminar he teaches at Harvard. It’s called “Insights From Narratives of Illness,” and he uses literature — from the Bible to Turgenev and Tolstoy to Kafka — to get students thinking about how “the experience of illness touches every corner of human emotion and behavior.” I guess the fact that Groopman even teaches such a course is, in some significant way, an answer to my original question.

Here is the first paragraph of Groopman’s piece:

Medicine engages life’s existential mysteries: the miraculous moment of birth, the jarring exit at death, the struggle to find meaning in suffering. But medicine is practiced in the mundane world and involves concrete issues like the imbalance of power between physician and patient; the role of quackery, avarice and ego in molding a doctor’s behavior; and the demand for perfection in the face of human fallibility. No insight into its more existential aspects is found in clinical textbooks, properly devoted to physiology, pharmacology and pathology. Rather, it is literature that most vividly grapples with such mysteries, and with the character of physician and patient.

Finally, I wanted to point out that Groopman’s book, How Doctors Think, features a wrenching case study of an American mother who adopts a Vietnamese baby that turns out to be very sick. It brings up many of the foreign-adoption issues that Levitt blogged about here. Fortunately, the Groopman story has a happy ending.